The southern chacma baboon (Papio ursinus ursinus) is wide-spread throughout South Africa but the Cape Peninsula has the unique privilege of having these animals living in close proximity to the urban environment. The flip side of this, however, is that an increasing human population and the resultant urban sprawl has fragmented their environment and is putting pressure on troops and their access to important resources such as habitat, food and water. This situation leads to an increase in human/baboon interactions which will have detrimental consequences. Baboons are attracted to urban areas because of the easy access to food and water, especially during the summer months and after fires. The food found in the urban environment lacks the nutritional benefits of natural foraging with most of these foods being high in sugars. When baboons forage naturally, they burn up energy by travelling as they eat but when they eat the urban diet, the food is all found in one place so there is no need to travel. One hour of urban bin pilfering equals one day of natural foraging. Habituation aside, a bad diet alone leads to health issues that this already compromised population can ill-afford. It is therefore imperative that these animals, like all wild animals, have sufficient natural habitat in which to live and forage with no reason for them to enter the urban areas. We need to keep our wildlife wild!
After an absence of approx. three years, the Slangkop Troop (one of the six managed chacma baboon troops in the Southern Population of Cape Town) has been returned to forage on the mountains behind Kommetjie. This is a small village situated at the foot of the Slangkop Mountain, with the chilly Atlantic lapping (unless it’s winter when thundering waves crash into our coastline) at its shores, and is an oasis of natural vegetation and wildlife that has been attracting relocating city-dwellers for decades. The Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) division of SANParks manages and protects the natural heritage on the Cape Peninsula; often in open access/unfenced regions, of which Slangkop is one such area. The communities in this region tend to have a love/hate relationship with these animals and one of the key causes for this is that we seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are living on the threshold of a nature reserve and that all the animals are wild and need to be treated with respect. CapeNature and SANParks have even run an awareness campaign in the past, as part of their coexistence ethos, in an attempt to educate the public (residents as well as tourists) about our wild neighbours. Specifically highlighted, were the dangers of feeding baboons, effectively encouraging them to associate humans with food, and leading to a commonly used phrase… “A Fed Baboon is a Dead Baboon”. A succinct way of summing up the effects irresponsible human behaviour can have on these animals. And yet still people feed them.
Growing up in Kommetjie we were taught about the wildlife of the area, and that included the baboon troops and how best to minimise interactions and prevent altercations with these wild animals. This included face-to-face measures, waste management, gardening tips, and paying attention to your surroundings (barking dogs, whistling monitors etc.). As a kid I so enjoyed their antics as they moved through the village, shepherded by the Baboon Matters monitors employed back then to watch over the troops. This monitoring style was done in a non-invasive, well-educated and respectful (to baboons and humans) manner. People moving to and living in Kommetjie choose to do so with full knowledge of their proximity to the beautiful natural environment surrounding the village. This includes the fact that we live on the boundary of an unfenced nature reserve meaning “boundary-breaching” visits from porcupines (eating bulbs and vegetables), snakes (eeeek!), scorpions, caracal, baboons and even, heaven-forbid, the odd koi-fishing heron. Just to be clear, I am in no way trivialising the concern and fear of having wild animals enter your home. It’s hugely scary, they are after all wild, and something that should not be encouraged by ineffective waste management. My concern is the fact that there are human-generated attractants throughout urban areas that need to be dealt with and killing baboons is not the solution to that problem. What is also troubling, and certainly not helping the issue, is the aggressive and sensationalist language used when referring to baboons as well as the spreading of misinformation that continues to confuse people and hinder the efforts to find sustainable solutions.
Choosing to live in a village like Kommetjie means choosing to live close to nature, to coexist with the wildlife that also call this region home. And by coexistence, I do not mean allowing them into the villages, to raid your home and have a feast in the bins. Coexistence means being aware of them and understanding their behaviour, and what attracts them to urban areas. It means finding solutions to keep them wild, making the mountains a more appealing place to forage. This does not need to be done through violence, but does need to include providing them with water. Prior to the 2009 and 2012 takeover of the Baboon Management tender by Nature Conservation Corporation (NCC) and Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS) respectively, Baboon Matters watched over the troops of the Peninsula; ensuring their safety, educating the public and cultivating the coexistence ethos so lacking in the world. After the takeover, there was a clear escalation in the aggressiveness of the management protocols, coexistence seemingly no longer being the goal, as much as the term is being flaunted. There seems to be inconsistencies in what is being reported, a successful management solution that protects wildlife and humans, and what is actually happening, baboons being killed because humans aren’t taking responsibility for their choices. After three years of mismanaging a situation of their own making, the Baboon Research Unit and the City of Cape Town have a choice of either a sanctuary or euthanasia for the four females remaining in Scarborough. The University of Cape Town’s Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) suggests that to prevent the growth of the troop (how, there are only females and dispersing males don’t usually survive under current protocols?), and more conflict, the small group should be sent to a sanctuary (Richardson 2020). An exercise that would be carried out to avoid a “PR fallout” by euthanising them, and will apparently not be paid for by the very organisations that created the situation (Richardson 2020). The Scarborough Troop had 18 individuals back in 2013 but in December 2015, the dominant male was removed and killed. By late April of 2016, the troop had halved in number and of the remaining nine baboons, all were females (Cruise 2016). Now, four years later, there are only four females left. Is this what the future looks like for the rest of the Cape Peninsula troops? A contract that is costing ratepayers 14 million rand a year, is also going to cost us the lives of our baboons.
213 baboons have been killed between 2012 and November 2019.
What I have recently witnessed in response to the Slangkop Troop’s return to Kommetjie, is alarming and a very sad indication of how the world, in part (there are still a few stalwarts out there standing up for nature), is responding to our collapsing ecosystems. Drumlines along the Australian coast to indiscriminately kill sharks, most recently using the excuse of a surf contest. South Africa boasts the unique Shark Spotters programme as well as the innovative SharkSafe Barriers (hopefully replacing the shark nets of KZN). Farmers killing top predators to protect their livestock. South Africa has the Cape Leopard Trust and Cheetah Outreach with their Anatolian shepherds that are being deployed to act as Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) to minimise predator and livestock deaths. Last year South Africans urged the Minister of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to reassess the viability of the octopus fishery due to the number of whale entanglements occurring in the False Bay octopus pots. All gear was removed from the bay, only to be reinstated pending an overhaul of the equipment and protocols. Tidal pools dotting our coastline provide a safe, ocean-swimming experience but cleaning them has always destroyed any marine-life living within them. Just this week the City of Cape Town has decided that it will now manage the tidal pools as ecological systems and work towards chemical-free cleaning by the end of 2020. So why then are we so against finding a coexistence solution to the baboon situation of the Cape Peninsula?
South Africa has such a rich natural heritage and we should always be acting to preserve biodiversity through “innovative, non-invasive and sustainable solutions to resolve conflict situations between humans and wildlife”. Which is also what is said on the home page of the HWS website but is not what they appear to be promoting. We used to have the Baboon Monitoring Programme; we now have a baboon eradication programme. And what is of greatest concern is the support that this violent persecution is receiving from the City of Cape Town and its residents. The Peninsula is rapidly losing one of its iconic species, a population that, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), is potentially threatened and should be monitored and protected (Seiphetlho 2018). Continued elimination of “problem” baboons could drive this population towards local extinction.
So, what is the problem? Well to start, there’s more than one. This produces a positive feedback loop that is moving the system further away from equilibrium and coexistence and closer to chaos and destruction. You might think that an exaggerated statement but let’s unpack the number of issues in this system…
- HWS Raiding Protocol
- Incredibly one-sided – very aggressive towards baboons but supremely lax on the perpetrator of human-generated attractants
- Have the raiding tendencies declined or stopped completely since the implementation of the protocol? No. In fact, with the Slangkop Troop returning to the mountains behind Kommetjie, they have been in the village nearly everyday
- Nearly 80 males have been killed under this management protocol (as at November 2019) and a number have just disappeared. According to the 2019 census, there were just 9 adult male baboons in the 6 managed baboon troops of the Southern population. This is an increase of only 3 since 1999 when 6 adult males were counted in these troops. And don’t forget the large number of baboons that disappeared in Constantia during 2018
- Baboons are being exterminated, at a frightening rate, and under questionable circumstances
- Are the correct individuals being “blamed” for raids? Some of the baboons are collared, making them easy to spot. Are they being unfairly burdened with raids carried out by other individuals purely because they are obviously distinguishable? How do residents describe the raiding baboon?
- Foraging, more than once, on a road verge or fynbos in an urban area will count as one strike against an animal and enter it into the system for Damage Causing Baboons (DCB), signalling the start of its march towards inevitable death
- A baboon is considered a medium risk (DCB) if it “raids” a property for water (a bit of a stacked deck scenario when considering that the Slangkop Troop was moved to, and is being contained in, an area with no natural water sources)
- A baboon can be euthanised “if the efforts to educate owners on the consequences of inadequate baboon-proofing has failed”
- The categories are vague at best, with baboons being the ones fielding the consequences of non-complying residents. Do the residents reporting encounters know what threatening behaviour looks like and does that correspond with what HWS constitutes as threatening? Do residents know the difference between assertive behaviour and an attack, and between a fear grimace and aggression?
- Baboons are being killed based on a flawed system that is being touted as a “sustainable, non-invasive, innovative solution” (HWS)
- Aggressive Monitoring Strategy of HWS
- Paintball guns and bear bangers – something originally opposed by the SPCA but then supported. What changed? Certainly not the methods
- Causes confusion when monitors shoot from all angles, the baboons scattering to escape
- The continual shooting at/of baboons (often mothers with young clinging to them), sending them into screaming panic, is no way to “monitor or manage wild animals” and is certainly NOT a “sustainable, non-invasive, innovative solution” (as stated on the HWS home page). This is violent persecution and it needs to stop.
- Is not working but is still being used and supported
- Results in a constant state of heightened stress and fear in which these animals are having to live – evident in their agitated behaviour which increases the occurrence of negative interactions with humans
- Results in the plastic casings of the paintballs littering our streets and being washed into the stormwater system
- HWS Guidelines for Dispersing/Displaced Male Baboons
- Male ranking is dynamic, statuses being won and lost, and as such dispersing males make more than one attempt to join another troop, or start their own, and often go through this process more than once in their lifetime
- A young dispersing male (6-9 years old) that is categorised as DCB 3 (High risk – e.g.: forms/leads a splinter group) can be euthanised on his very first dispersal
- A Mature Dispersing Male (9+ years old) can be euthanised on his third dispersal attempt even if his only “crime” was to continually search for water in urban areas (a bit of a stacked deck scenario when considering that the Slangkop Troop was moved to, and is being contained in, an area with no natural water sources)
- Males need to be able to disperse to encourage gene flow, increase genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding. But with suburbia creeping into nature’s domain, the remaining natural spaces are rapidly dwindling. With so few options left to them, where are they supposed to go? Add to that the stress on resources after fires and during drought. In 2008 there was deemed to be a lack of genetic diversity in the Cape Peninsula population, and with nearly
80 males being removed since then and no fresh genes being introduced into this isolated population, the situation will only get worse
- The breakdown of troop social structure and subsequent changes in behaviour and reproductive success due to the killing of dispersing males that are seen as “problems”
- Removing adult males create a vacuum in the troop that needs to be filled, younger males that might not yet be ready for the task then fight for leadership and females. This could lead to splintering of troops into smaller groups that are more vulnerable. New males coming into a dominance role will kill off offspring of the previous alpha, much like lions, which further reduces numbers of an already dwindling population
- Poor Planning by HWS
- Slangkop Troop moved to a new area overnight
- Did not provide water on the mountain – results in troop entering the village to find water and subsequently becoming medium risk DCBs because presumably they need to drink more than 5 times a month
- HWS did not inform residents timeously, giving them inadequate time to prepare for the troop’s return
- Serious Lack of Waste Management and Enforcement by Residents, HWS and the City of Cape Town
- Little consequence for residents not adequately managing their refuse and this is a HUGE contributor to the situation
- Lack of education – little to no interaction with local residents regarding best practice
- Baboons are being put to death as a result of non-complying residents
- Other Human-Generated Attractants
- Open and unsecured fruit trees and vegetable gardens
- Unsecured rubbish
- Unsecured compost heaps
- Bird feeders
- We as residents are not taking responsibility of our choices, we are unbalancing the system by disregarding consequences and only focussing on the benefits to us
- A drive to minimise attractants needs to be supported as a community, even if there are only a few residents that don’t comply, baboons will still venture into the village to access easy food
- Alien Vegetation
- Increases the intensity and frequency of fires which can potentially destroy the seed banks of indigenous species preventing or delaying sufficient regrowth
- Outcompetes the indigenous vegetation which forms part of the baboons’ diet
- Not enough clearing being done in the baboon home ranges
Bottom line is, the baboons come into urban areas because there is easy food on offer and we have only ourselves to blame for that. There are, however, a number of ways in which we can minimise the attractiveness of “boundary-breaching” and they need to form part of a multi-faceted approach if the solution is to be successful. “Any given tool, technique, or approach is more likely to succeed if it is incorporated into a full arsenal of conflict mitigation strategies and applications with flexibility to change as conditions change” (Madden 2004).
Thoughts and Suggestions:
- HWS Raiding Protocol
- Stronger actions need to be taken against the perpetrators of human-generated attractants; this needs to be supported by the introduction of waste management by-laws by the City of Cape Town
- If there are no attractants, there is no reason for a baboon to raid – this protocol is focussing on the wrong aspects of a raid
- Aggressive Monitoring Strategy of HWS
- This is very obviously not working so another method needs to be found that keep the animals calm
- What was wrong with the methods employed by Baboon Matters? There were more individuals in the troops back then and yet the monitors managed to herd the baboons using only whistling and their voices (no shooting of paint-ball guns or discharging of bear bangers)
- HWS Guidelines for Dispersing/Displaced Male Baboons
- Decisions are being made on misrepresented baboon behaviour and life history
- Male baboons need to be allowed to disperse and should not be considered a problem
- Poor Planning by HWS
- If troops are going to be confined to a water-scarce area then provisions have to be made to provide for them – reinstall the water trough for the Slangkop Troop
- If raiding for water is seen as such a risk factor then troops should only be living in areas with sufficient resources
- An early warning system should be set up in fringe communities
- Monitors should keep in contact with a community spokesperson who can report troop movements on a WhatsApp location alert group, especially useful to residents living right on the boundary who usually don’t have pre-entry warning
- Monitors can also carry a bell that they can intermittently ring as move through the village
- Some sort of siren can be used to let the community know of the troops’ imminent arrival – this works with the local Kommetjie Primary School (three short rings signals the troop’s proximity to the school) but as it is not open on weekends and during holidays, it isn’t a sustainable solution. Unless monitors can remotely access the alarm
- Serious Lack of Waste Management and Enforcement by Residents, HWS and the City of Cape Town
- Organise with the City of Cape Town to have the rubbish from the households closest to the edge removed first and as early as possible
- Residents to keep rubbish in a lockable cage, garage or shed between collection days
- Residents should not put their rubbish out the day before collection
- Secure bins to a wall, pole or fence (if small, then secure it off the ground) as baboons have difficulty opening and rummaging through bins that stay upright
- City of Cape Town needs to introduce waste management by-laws under which HWS can issue enforceable fines
- City of Cape Town should be providing lockable wheelie bins (instead of the normal ones) to residents living along the edge of the nature reserve
- Residents should apply for a lockable wheelie bin
- Lock lockable wheelie bins, even if it’s just with a clip
- Inadequate waste management is, in effect, feeding baboons, something for which there are fines that can (and should) be enforced
- Other Human-Generated Attractants
- Plant indigenous vegetation instead of feeding birds, also more beneficial to the local birds changes in nutritional requirements may coincide with flowering and fruiting periods
- Secure compost heap and vegetable garden
- Avoid growing fruit trees
- Keep pet food inside
- Get the whole community involved, it won’t work if there are still pockets of easy food to be targeted
- Easy food is, in effect, feeding the baboons and something for which there are fines that can (and should) be enforced. Living on the edge of a nature reserve, it is imperative that baboons are not encouraged into the urban areas and those that do encourage them should be fined accordingly
- Alien Vegetation
- Majority of home ranges occur within SANParks land, alien clearing should be a priority anyway
Let’s address some of the suggested solutions…
- Which troops should be moved? With what criteria would this decision be made? From which angle, human or baboon? Who makes the decision?
- To where would the troops be moved? Another reserve? A sanctuary? How will it be decided?
- Who would pay? SANParks? They are the custodians of the animals within their parks. HWS? They are mandated to manage the baboons.
- How long will this last? With urban sprawl, climate change and other potential conflicts, like with farmers, when will the troop(s) need to be moved again? Or is all wildlife just going to end up behind fences and in zoos?
- We have already eliminated their natural predators (leopards) from the Cape Peninsula with detrimental effect, do we know what the impacts to the ecosystem would be should the troop(s) be removed from the Peninsula?
- Baboons play an important ecological role in the ecosystem; aerating soil, spreading seeds (important after wildfires, especially when they destroy seedbanks). What would the impacts of removal be on lower trophic levels? What other ecosystem services will be removed should these animals be eradicated?
- Nothing happens in isolation, there are an untold number of ramifications to the removal of a species from an ecosystem
- Will limit the genetic diversity in the troops left behind, if any
- Electric Fence
- It doesn’t work (e.g.: Tokai Troop are able to walk through the gate left open by residents and they are also able to climb over it)
- Kills other wildlife
- Prevents the movement of other wildlife, especially when fleeing fires
- Further fragments habitats
- A huge expense (approx. R 1 million/km) and who pays? Certainly not the residents directly. It is SANParks land but it’s unfenced reserve, and one that we have chosen to live next to. HWS is mandated to manage the peninsula baboons so would they foot the bill?
- Who else gets a fence? What would the criteria be for having a fence constructed around an urban area?
- What happens during loadshedding? It would need a battery back-up installed as well and what’s stopping that from being stolen?
- Who will maintain it?
- Reinstallation of water troughs on the mountain
- Definitely the most simple, cost-effective and sustainable option, and one that is known to work
- Will need to be used in conjunction with the removal of attractants in urban areas
- TMNP will not have artificial water sources introduced onto their land but they are not providing any solutions to the situation involving the animals they are supposed to be protecting. Again, a stacked deck! Other SANParks reserves provide artificial water sources, so what is TMNP’s concern?
- Virtual Fence
- Used in Tasmania and the UK to reduce the amount of wildlife ending up as roadkill and a version is currently being used in Gordon’s Bay
- In the case of baboon troops, it would work like a territorial boundary but with pyrotechnics (I am unsure, in the hands on HWS, how ethically this would be done)
- Would only be triggered when a collared animal, most probably being the alpha male, approaches the fence. The collars are big, bulky and negatively impact the interactions between troop members. As far as I can tell, they look like those used for antelope. More research should be going into finding more suitable collars or satellite tags, especially if they are going to be worn long-term
- What kind of pyrotechnics are used?
- While I have seen the HWS PowerPoint on its effectiveness, have there been any impartial studies looking at the impact on the baboons?
- It shouldn’t kill and prevent the movement of other wildlife
- Who will pay for the installation and upkeep?
- Will be better suited to the terrain of the peninsula than a physical fence
I’ll say it again…Baboons come into the urban areas for water and easy food. By providing water in their natural habitat or allowing them to still access natural water sources on the mountain, removing the lure of easy food from the urban areas by proper waste management, possible installation of a virtual fence (once an EIA has been carried out and more suitable collars/satellite tags have been sourced), and have an early warning system in place for in case the baboons do still manage to enter the fringing settlements, they should learn that there is no reward and the frequency of “boundary-breaching” should decrease.
Choosing to live on the urban edge we cannot continue to destroy nature, especially so indiscriminately and at the rate at which we are. Planting bulbs and growing open veggie gardens also attract porcupines, having an open compost heap attracts rats, and subsequently snakes, having a fish pond attracts heron. Whether to have these or not are all choices that we make and we need to start understanding that nothing happens in isolation, choices have consequences. I cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of people moving to an area that embraces nature and then systematically destroying it. Bearing in mind that under the CapeNature Conservation Laws Amendment Act of 2000, it’s illegal to feed, kill, or injure baboons and yet tourists and tour guides still feed them (despite the numerous signs) and residents (who have chosen to live on the boundary of an unfenced nature reserve) are known to shoot them with pellet guns, poison them, set dogs on them, throw boiling water on them. They are also being shot daily by paintball guns (something originally opposed by the SPCA) as a supposed method of management. This “solution” is not good enough. In no way am I saying invite them into your house, they are wild animals, we just shouldn’t be killing them for trying to survive in an environment that we have, and continue to, fragment and transform.
On a personal note… We have lived on the mountain, at the very edge of the territory of these animals, for 28 years and in all that time we have had less than a handful of negative interactions with this troop…and all as a result of us being complacent and not paying attention. For years we have had a lockable cage (long before the lockable bins were provided by the City of Cape Town) and have never had an issue with baboons raiding our rubbish. When the troop enters Kom, ours is usually one of the first houses they encounter. But with no rubbish to raid, no unbuglarbarred windows to sneak through, no fruit on display and only lemon trees in the garden; they just stop for water, a quiet forage in the Cape ash, and a jump in the pool, before they move on. There is always one juvenile that will try a lemon and there’s no way that we’ll begrudge them that…the entertainment value is too high. We remain aware of our pets’ behaviour (agitated barking dogs and a slinking cat) and have joined a WhatsApp group for troop location updates.
We have made a choice to live here, on the urban edge, we should be taking responsibility for the repercussions of these choices. When are we going to proactively play a part in the conservation and protection of our natural heritage? Nature is not a closed-off static entity that you admire from afar. In cities one can become somewhat detached but it’s still there…surviving. Here in Kommetjie we are able to be immersed in it, fully experience the majesty and proximity of this living, all-inclusive dynamic system. This is something so incredibly special, and for that privilege my family and I have always tried to provide a refuge for the wildlife that are only trying to survive in their ever-shrinking environment.
If you would like to find out more about good waste management, about the challenges facing the conservation of one of Cape Town’s most iconic species, or about how best to peacefully coexist alongside nature, on the doorstep of which we have chosen to live, please check out Baboon Matters.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
***All photos were taken before the introduction of paintball guns and bear bangers***
References and Resources
Baboon Matters Trust. [ONLINE] Available at: http://baboonmatters.org.za/
Cruise A. 2016. Is This the End for South Africa’s Famed Urban Baboons? [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/04/160422-baboons-cape-town-conservation-south-africa/
Human Wildlife Solutions. [ONLINE] Available at: https://hwsolutions.co.za/
Madden F. 2004. Creating Coexistence between Humans and Wildlife: Global Perspectives on Local Efforts to Address Human-Wildlife Conflict. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 9: 247-257.
Richardson H. 2020. Urban Wildlife: Managing Cape Town’s Baboons. [ONLINE] Available at: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/urban-wildlife-managing-cape-towns-baboons/
Roberts C. 2007. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Washington: Island Press.
Seiphetlho N. 2018. Chacma Baboon. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.sanbi.org/animal-of-the-week/chacma-baboon/
2 thoughts on “The Urban Baboon – A Charismatic Primate under Threat”
Very well put, if a bit longwinded and repetitive. I love to see the baboons in my garden and drinking from my small natural pond. I don’t begrudge the odd bulb being taken. I feel honoured to live within a natural environment. I hardly have any ‘rubbish’ to put out – just a small bag of non- compostable or recyclable things which I put out when I hear the van coming on Tuesday morning. I am gobsmacked at the overflowing bins people seem to have each week.
Hi Eugenie. It’s great to see other Kom residents embracing our natural surroundings and being proactive in response to this situation.