Picture the scene. You’re in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s tourist hotspots. It’s a beautiful sunny day, perfect for a daytrip. So you decide to go here;
That’s Cape Point, Africa’s southernmost point. It’s a dramatic finger of rock stretching out into the sea. It’s where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. And it’s well worth seeing. So you pack up your hire car with a few tasty snacks for the road and set off.
There are lots of spectacular viewpoints along the way. You stop at one and hop out to take a couple of pictures. Then this happens.
That, good people, is a Chacma Baboon. When I wrote about Vervet Monkeys the other day, I implied that they were a bit of a handful. They are nothing compared to these guys. These guys are distilled mayhem. The Hell’s Angels of the Lowveld. They make any other destructive animal you can think of look like a teddy bear. And yes, that one does know how to open a car door. He could probably break the lock with a coat-hanger given half a chance.
Baboons are just monkeys. Monkeys that have done something rather unusual. They have come down out of the trees and moved into the grasslands. They have become omnivores, sometimes even hunting and killing antelope or Vervet Monkeys. They do still climb phenomenally well, and need tall trees or cliffs to roost in at night. But they are not nearly as dependant as other monkeys on trees for their safety. For one reason only. Would you go and pick a fight with a Hell’s Angel?
They are sometimes referred to as dog-faced baboons. For obvious reasons. While most monkeys have flattened, human like faces, these guys have elongated snouts like dogs. Because they need somewhere to keep these.
Those teeth are bigger than a lion’s. And they aren’t there for show. Curiously enough, the theory is that those teeth evolved not for self-defence but for dealing with other baboons. I’ll go into that later. But they do prove rather handy when a troop is attacked. Attacking a troop of baboons is a very bad idea.
Like the Hell’s Angels, they spend an awful lot of time fighting among themselves, but when the chips are down, they have each other’s backs. And a skirmish line of adult male baboons, with arms and hands hardened to steel by years of hauling themselves in and out of trees, and those fearsome teeth sticking out one end, is a formidable thing indeed. They are fully capable of tearing a leopard to shreds, and a domestic dog having a go at them doesn’t stand a chance.
This doesn’t make them invulnerable. Indeed, leopards are their main predators. If baboons are like Hell’s Angels, leopards are like ninjas. They will lie in wait or stalk up to within touching distance, and then leap out and kill a baboon as quickly as they can. And then get the hell out. They are happy to come back and retrieve their kill later, when the troop has moved on. Or, like ninjas, they attack at night, when the baboons can’t see properly. But while leopards might be the baboons’ main predator, baboons are certainly not the leopard’s favourite prey. Even lions tend to be wary of baboons.
I mentioned that Vervet monkeys lived a life of constant political intrigue. They can’t even begin to compete with these guys. Vervets live in groups of about ten or so. Baboon troops can be up to 200 strong. Every single relationship within the troop has to be managed. And things can get very complicated indeed.
The political life of a baboon revolves around two things. Dominance and sex. I’ll try and give you a very basic introduction.
The females are the foundation of the troop. Generally speaking, they are born into their position in the hierarchy, and stay in that position all their lives. Once the males reach maturity, they move out of their birth troop and into another. And then perhaps another. A male’s position in the hierarchy is not inherited. It is earned.
It all seems fairly simple so far. But it gets more complicated. Almost everything a baboon does includes some element of communication. The way they sit, the way they look at each other, the way they walk, the sounds they make, who they sit near to, who they touch, all carry meaning. And it pays to be on the ball, because getting things wrong ends like this.
It gets even more complicated. This, to a baboon, is like crack.
The babies look very different to the adults. And they trigger something in other baboons. They want them. They want to hug them and squeeze them and cuddle them. Which sounds cute. Except that if a high ranking female wants the baby of a low ranking female, she will simply take it, even if she has to drag it screaming from her arms.
It gets still more complicated. Baboons are visual animals. They see colour just as well as we do. Most of the time, a female baboon looks like this.
But every now and then, she will sashay provocatively through the troop carrying a large sign that says she’s ready for sexy time. It looks like this.
That’s a hell of a thing to throw into a volatile social mix.
There’s more. Baboons form and reinforce relationships with each other by grooming each other. Some of these are fairly straightforward; mother, daughter; siblings; allied males. But there is one particular relationship which evens out some of the bumps in this charged situation. Males and females form very close bonds with each other.
Almost every female has what amounts to being a boyfriend. They spend a great deal of time grooming each other. The male might help with the care of the female’s offspring, even if they are not his. This relationship works in everyone’s favour. In scenes like the one where the high-ranking female tries to steal a low ranking female’s baby, her special friend will step in and drive off the usurper. He’ll have her back in any sort of drama. And in return? Well, that brazen little hussy up there may not end up mating with the dominant males in the troop. She is just as likely to mate with her special friend, even if he is of a lower rank.
All this complication must make baboons come across as cerebral, sedate sort of creatures, who spend their days mired in intrigue, forming and breaking alliances, climbing the corporate ladder and undermining those who get in their way. Not so much. Baboon politics looks like this.
And they sound like this.
That, by the way, was not an isolated and violent incident. That is just what a baboon troop sounds like. They do that every half hour or so.
None of this is particularly relaxing. Neurologists and psychologists studying the effects of stress on humans study these guys as well. They are a mess of stress related hormones and anxiety disorders.
Baboons are not just the subjects of study. They have a long and troubled relationship with man. It is testament to how smart these creatures are that they are often the last remaining wild animals in any area. And not because they keep a low profile. They are hugely destructive on farms. They eat all the crops, and are even major predators of young farm animals. Human beings have basically spent the last three hundred years or so trying to wipe them from the face of the earth, with guns, poison, traps, exploding scarecrows, and the works. But they have never succeeded. The baboons are still there, barking from the cliffs and the treetops.
The places where I tend to spend my time are not trying to wipe them out. But they do try to control them. This is a baboon-proof dustbin.
And that is the human-baboon problem in a nutshell. We have too much food, and they are big enough, strong enough, and clever enough to get it. Dustbins are the least of our problems. You saw what they did with the car. They are even worse with houses. Imagine a cat burglar twice as agile as any human, who could fit through much smaller gaps. Leave a window open just one tiny bit, and they will spot it and get in.
And then they will trash it. They will open every cupboard looking for food. They will empty every jar, knock over every bottle. And that’s just the start.
When I was much younger, on holiday down in the Lowveld, we went out on a nice long drive. And left a window open. At the end of winter, when there was little left to eat out in the bush. They got in. and what they did was simply breathtaking. Not a single jar of food was left intact. Every packet was torn open and thrown out. Every teabag was ripped up and spread around. Boxes of puzzles were scattered on the floor. Toilet rolls were unrolled, pillows torn open. I’ve never seen anything like it.
But that was just the start. There was glass. Broken glass. Everywhere. Baboons don’t know about glass. And so there was blood. Everywhere. And then, the piece de resistance. Poo. We must have surprised them on our return. We must have given them a bit of a fright. Which wasn’t good. The whole troop must have been in the house; about fifty of them. And every single one of them soiled itself. Everywhere. The floor was covered in rotten, fruity smelling poo. It was up in the rafters. It was in cupboards and on top of bookshelves.
We got straight back into the car and drove to the nearest town, an hour away. And bought fifty litres of industrial disinfectant. And drove back. It was a very long afternoon.
In a way, we were lucky. Because every now and then, instead of poo, people find baboons in their houses. Baboons are resourceful. If escape is impossible, they have another option or two. One of those is to lurk. Quietly. I know a good few people who have come home, grabbed themselves a beer, plopped down on the couch, and then looked up into the rafters. And seen their new housemates for the first time. Baboons know when they are rumbled. And that it’s time to explore another option or two. Which means that it is then time for the humans to lock themselves in the bathroom. Just in case these are the options.
My sister once came home and surprised some baboons in the house, but it was fine. They had obviously just come in, and fled without damaging anything. Two hours later, she went through to get a towel from a cupboard. What she got instead was a full grown baboon, which thankfully flew past her and out the door. She needed more disinfectant. And not for the baboons.
I make them sound like the devil incarnate. They’re not. They’re fascinating to watch, even when they’re behaving badly. Coming across the babies of a troop at play is one of the best things that could happen to you. But baboons are the best example I can think of of why we need to be careful around wild animals.
Those signs you see in wild places saying “Don’t feed the animals” aren’t there because the rangers hate fun. They’re there because there are animals out there that don’t work well with us. That are too smart and too resourceful to be allowed to learn to associate us with food. And to realise just how bad we are at defending that food. Until we tire of the game. Baboon-proof dustbins are all well and good, but when animals become a genuine problem, we humans prove to be rather resourceful ourselves. And problems like these tend to be solved permanently.
But that’s enough preachiness for one post. I will leave you with a clip of a baboon barking. Watch it in context. Imagine you are walking through the bush alone, a little nervous, keeping an eye open for animals. But then this happens. Next to you.
It is…. disconcerting. But not too much of a problem. All you need to do is carry around a small bottle of industrial disinfectant.