by Julian Saunders & Larissa Swedell

There is no quick fix to the challenges posed by human-wildlife interactions. When it involves baboons, the challenges are even greater. Baboons are behaviourally flexible and extremely mobile and have thus been able to adapt to and circumvent most strategies implemented to date. We must, therefore, remain creative and continue to devise ways to minimize baboon-human conflict in areas where commensalism has become prevalent. When devising such strategies, it is wise to consider the ecological needs and behaviour of baboons in their natural environment.

The management of a commensal baboon troop should take into account the major environmental factors that serve as attractors to baboons. A management strategy that actively controls the factors that attract baboons to human settlements, and humans in general, will go a long way towards reducing the negative interactions between baboons and humans.

The fundamental problem in places like the Cape Peninsula of South Africa is that human and baboon activities are increasingly overlapping. For the most part, this is not desirable. To reduce this overlap we need to figure out out why there is an overlap in the first place. The answer is that baboons enter human-inhabited areas in order to fulfill three core biological needs. Baboons are not attracted to humans per se; rather, it is the resources humans provide them that they are drawn to. If we identify these resources, we can figure out how to manipulate resource availability by decreasing it in the areas we do not want baboons to be and increasing it in the areas we do want them to be. Ultimately, this should enable us to change baboon behaviour so that the space they use does not overlap with ours.

Management strategies employed to reduce human-baboon interactions generally fall within two realms:

  1. reduce the attractants
  2. use aversion techniques

The latter category of strategies has been used with varying degrees of success in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa and elsewhere. For example, in the Cape Peninsula baboons are herded by baboon monitors who attempt to keep them away from roads and out of urban areas. Sound aversion has also been used to ward away baboons. Here, we briefly outline some points about the former method, focusing on what attracts baboons to certain areas.

From a socioecological perspective, the environmental resources most critical to baboons are:

  • food
  • water
  • sleeping sites

 

Food

Many a mother has been overheard offering her daughter this sagely advice: "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach". Too true. And baboons are no different to your average human male… An easy meal is always welcome.

Unfortunately it does not take baboons long to learn that it pays to raid humans for food. This behaviour is not a result of a lack of food in their natural environment; it is simply less work for them to eat our pre-processed, nutrient-dense foods than to forage for their own. A quick snack in Joe's garbage bin may save an hour’s worth of foraging in the veld. So, raid our dustbins they do!

There are many things we can do to prevent baboons from targeting our food resources – some of them are easy to implement and others are a lot more complicated. For example, "baboon-proofing" one's house goes a long way towards reducing its likelihood of being targeted by baboons. 

But one of the most effective and comprehensive approaches to this problem would be to implement recycling programmes in all areas where baboons occur. A recycling programme will, on average, reduce a household’s disposable waste by two thirds. This means that instead of there being three garbage bins that can attract baboons to a home, there is now only one (accompanied by two recycling bins filled with washed containers that do not contain food). The attractant power of garbage bins has now been reduced to a third of what it was before! This is a huge leap in the right direction. The remaining garbage bins should be secured by some baboon-proof device (there are many solutions readily available, and baboon-proof bins are available from the City of Cape Town for residents in baboon-affected areas).

Recycling, of course, is something we all should be doing anyway, regardless of whether or not there are baboons in our area!

 

Water

Like all other mammals, baboons require water. In the dry heat of the summer, this becomes particularly important for several reasons. Firstly, in the summer the ground is drier with fewer standing pools of water from the rain compared to winter. Secondly, the natural foods that baboons eat do not contain as much water during the summer. In some parts of Africa, monkeys do not need to drink water at all because enough of it is contained in the foods that they eat, but this is not the case during the summer in temperate climates. Thirdly, baboons are not as adept at thermoregulation as are humans, i.e., it is more difficult for them to rid their bodies of excess heat. They must therefore actively engage in behaviours that lower their body temperature. They do this by sitting in the shade when possible and by drinking water.

Thus in summer, when it is hot, baboons actively seek out water both to drink and to lower their body temperature. The presence of water might thus be another reason – i.e., besides food – why baboons are attracted to human settlements. In Cape Town, for example, baboons have become internationally notorious for raiding grape harvests. Much has been said about their refined tastes, and this may well be the case… However, baboons are probably also drawn to the grapes because they are succulent and have a high water content!

Here is thus an opportunity to draw baboons away from human settlements: provide baboons with an artificial water source. This should be located far away from human settlements, where it is desirable to have baboons. For those who are aware of our cautions against provisioning, it is important to note here that providing baboons with water will not have the same negative repercussions as artificially provisioning baboons with food.

 

Sleeping sites

For all their robustness, baboons are extremely picky about their sleeping sites. A good sleeping site is an important resource, and although baboon troops are generally not territorial, they will fight for the privilege to bunker down at a preferred location. The value of sleeping sites is largely undocumented in the scientific literature. However, anyone who has done extensive research on baboon behaviour can testify to this. One can follow a troop all day long, ambling along at an easy pace. As dusk approaches, instead of opting for a seemingly suitable and conveniently located site, they will march for 5 km to return to their preferred sleeping site!

In many areas, human encroachment is destroying baboon habitat and as a result their sleeping sites as well. The baboons therefore adopt new sleeping sites close to humans (as humans provide easily accessible food and water as well). In the southern suburbs of Cape Town, an additional problem poses itself to baboons: the long-standing plantations of pine trees are being felled so that the area can be returned to indigenous fynbos – a worthy aim from an ecological and conservation standpoint, but one that carries consequences for baboons, who have become dependent on the pines and other non-native trees as sleeping sites and may instead sleep on roofs of houses as the felling of the pines continues.

By acknowledging the importance of sleeping sites to baboons, we have yet another management option: We can attract baboons to areas away from human settlements by building artificial sleeping sites.

We can construct artificial sleeping sites in ways that make them attractive to baboons. The sites must provide shelter from the wind and rain and thereby confer thermal advantages to baboons (i.e., warmth during winter and shade during summer). They must also be elevated to provide the baboons with a sense of security. Even if natural predators of baboons no longer exist in a given area, baboons will always choose a sleeping site that will provide safety from ground predators; this is instinctual behaviour.

Furthermore, these sites would be most effective if they provided the juveniles the opportunity to play. A troop will often spend hours in an area, often near sleeping sites, where the juveniles and subadult baboons engage in play behaviour. Play is essential for development of motor, sensory, and social skills in baboons. A sleeping site with ‘jungle gym’ features would be most likely to engage the little ones and would thus be beneficial to the baboons in these ways.

Given the importance of water discussed above, it makes obvious sense to provide an artificial water source close to the sleeping site so that it will provide an extra incentive to the baboons to both use the site for sleeping and remain close to it for some part of the day.

The three strategies outlined above by no means represent an exhaustive list of possible ways to reduce the negative interactions between baboons and humans. There is a huge array of methods that can be implemented. Many have already been tried; some have succeeded and some have failed. Our goal here is to provide useful information about baboon ecology and suggest new directions that might be pursued. If implemented properly, the three solutions outlined here will reduce conflict between humans and baboons.

This article has focused on three specific strategies based on the three environmental factors most critical to baboons. This demonstrates the importance of understanding baboon socio-ecology when approaching the management and conservation of commensal baboons. If you don’t understand the system, your efforts to repair it will be wasted.