Baboons, an icon, comic or scourge?

By Cobus Greyling, Reserve Compliance Officer

Baboons are a fascinating and intelligent species that have complex social structures and interactions, even prompting the well-known naturalist and poet Eugene Marais to dedicate “The Soul of the Ape” and “My Friends the Baboons” to them after devoting 3 years of study of this species.

Baboons are a common inhabitant of the Waterberg landscape as the ample cliffs, rocky outcrops and tall trees provide good places to overnight away from predators. The abundant, as well as constant water supply and habitat for a wide range of food are also contributing factors.

There are five species of baboons that occur in Africa or Arabia.
They are the following:

The latter four are mostly savannah dwelling while the Chacma Baboon is the only species occurring in South Africa.

The name Chacma is derived from the Khoikhoi word for baboon, choachamma and they are the largest of the monkeys reaching up to 40kg in the males. All primates with tails are classified as moneys, only apes have no tails. Baboons are very agile climbers but spend a large amount of time on the ground foraging for a diversity of food. These can range from fruits, grasses, seeds, bark, insects and roots, but they also have a taste for meat, including birds, rodents, and even the young of larger mammals, such as antelope and sheep. According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, “they are also highly selective in their food choices, with nutrient composition playing a large role in food selection. Reports claim that baboons typically choose foods that are high in protein and lipids and low in fibre and potential toxins”. This is learned behaviour with young animals copying the older troop members as the discovery of new food source information spreads through the group.

As a highly social species that can form groups of up to 200 animals, communicating through visual, vocal and tactile means is important. If one adds the highly developed senses, it makes the baboon a formidable adversary. Baboons are preyed upon by lion, leopard, jackal, spotted hyena as well as raptors and pythons.

The reproductive cycle of baboons is quite short with a gestation period of 6 months and a lifespan of 30 to 40 years.

Although the species is not threatened, expansion of human settlements and habitation has led to an increase in human-baboon conflict. Taking all the above factors into consideration it becomes clear that baboons could be a challenge when it comes to mitigating human animal conflict, especially since their movements are not restricted by natural barriers or fences. Prior to 2004 baboons were listed as  problem animals  and are currently  listed as normal game with all relevant laws applying which means that damage causing animals can be removed by the landowner.

The question therefore needs to be asked, “What could be considered as damage?” It is well known that they can have an impact on most crops, but the potential impact has a much wider scope than this. It also includes utilising feed provided for livestock and game (a baboon was recently observed picking up and running away with a 20kg lick block) and damage to plantations. Human infrastructure such as thatch roofs, solar panels, windows, etc. are also not spared around human habitation where a food source such as garbage is discovered. As animals learn that an easily accessible, more nutritious food source than their natural diet is available, raiding becomes more prevalent. As nutrition improves, often less time is spent naturally foraging and raiding increases along with the fecundity of the group. This strengthens the association made between humans and food.

Baboons can also potentially have a significant impact on insect, bird and reptile populations in localised areas. This is of course difficult to quantify without proper scientific study, but the imperative factor is to remove potential unnatural food sources from utilisation by baboons. This can be achieved by utilising animal proof dustbins, adequate electric fencing of any refuse areas with lockable gates and keeping all foodstuffs secured indoors and out of sight.

These measures would go a long way to ensuring a natural co-existence between baboons and humans in the long term without potential conflict.

Baboons remain an integral part of the eco-system in Welgevonden Game Reserve and the Waterberg and will always be present and therefore require people to take the responsibility to manage and mitigate any potential conflict.