Oct 16 2009

by Julian Saunders

A shorter version of this article was published in the Cape Argus, 16 October 2009.


The Contender

Space is at a premium on the Peninsula. It's war out there as groups fight over access to land. No struggle is more palpable than the one between baboons and people. Baboons are tenacious and stubborn; they show stamina and perseverance - the feisty lightweight contender. Their gallant effort notwithstanding, they take the brunt of the beating. Sadly, baboons are no match for the heavyweight titleholder - the technologically superior, and sometimes malevolent, humans. So year after year the battle continues, and baboon injuries accumulate.

Luckily, the humans in question usually show their better side - the gentler side - and they come to the aid of their hairy cousins and administer much needed care. Sometimes, however, the beating is just too severe and all we can do is lament the ignorance of humanity while we bury yet another one of the Cape Peninsula baboons.

This is a tired story. Our grandparents witnessed this uneven bout, we see it now and our children will probably shudder in horror at the sight of it too. There is an alarming generational difference in the tale though… Every year the density of people on the Peninsula increases; it's glorious, after all. Urbanization chews away at baboon habitat; roads and buildings carve up their remaining vestiges into isolated fragments. Not surprisingly, more baboons bleed and more graves are dug.

The team is at work

The good folks are not standing by idly though. SANParks, Cape Nature, City of Cape Town, scientists, residents - the whole bang shoot are stepping up to the plate and doing what they can; contributing towards the sometimes seemingly unattainable goal: a peaceful co-existence between baboons and people. These efforts are not only noble, but they also do work! People are making a difference. The baboons might not know this, but there is a large and skilled team batting for them; on most days, anyway.

This team has the bruises to prove it. Their fight is by no means an easy one. The adversary is a juggernaut: human progress and our inevitable separation from nature… Human development progresses mercilessly; thundering forward, driven by deep pockets. Baboons are swept aside as easily as gnats (be that persistent ones). People also sometimes just get fed up and do bad things. That's life.

"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.'' – Isaac Asimov (1988)

Something's Missing

As the concrete jungle grows, baboons are hurt and are increasingly at risk of being hurt. Those charged with their care (mostly voluntarily) will always race to their aid. A vet may work pro bono and heal where he can, but what to do with the ailing baboon while he/she is recovering? Year after year, this question badgers us. Sure, there are people who can put up a baboon for a night or two - at a stretch. But then what? These baboons need a safe place where they can fully recuperate. These are the ones that will recover…

But what about those that cannot be released because their injuries are just too severe? Or those that cannot be released because they have learned to behave in ways that are simply not compatible with human safety? What do we do with them?

The Custodians

Like it or not, we are the custodians of nature. Responsible conservation efforts must (and in the case of Peninsula baboons they do) focus on whole populations. Large scale conservation efforts cannot and must not focus on individual animals. This may be tragic to people who care about baboons, but it would be irresponsible and selfish for us to place the well-being of individual baboons before the health of entire baboon populations. This perspective, which has the benefit of all baboons at heart, inevitably means that individual baboons sometimes fall through the cracks.

This `for the greater good' argument unfortunately has dire consequences for dispersing male baboons on the Peninsula. In a closed system such as the peninsula, where the only way out is through miles of urban space, dispersing males usually end up foraging for survival in the middle of a Cape Town suburb. This poses problems for translocation off the peninsula due to learned raiding behavior and disease acquired from humans - both of which can be transmitted to other baboons, thereby perpetuating the problem. Thus, it would be irresponsible to translocate these baboons - it simply would not be fair to the people or to the baboons outside of the peninsula. It is an agonizing irony, but these baboons face the prospect of euthanasia because people care. This is a sad, but necessary, fact.

But here we have an opportunity. We have to decide: Do we bite the bullet and put them down? Or do we look for an alternative?

How about a Baboon Park?

A baboon park on the Peninsula may just be what is needed to fill this vacuum. We need a baboon park on the peninsula where baboons can recuperate and build their strength before being released back into the `wilds'. We need a baboon park to provide a home for those baboons that cannot be released because their injuries are too severe or their behavior is not acceptable to local residents.

A baboon park might also fill some of the aforementioned cracks through which some individual baboons fall. A baboon park can provide that much needed alternative - albeit in a limited way. Over the decades there will be many dispersing males that face death or `something else' (some undefined solution)… Can a baboon park be the "something else" for them? Definitely yes. Of course any baboon park will have a limited occupancy so it can never be the savior of all baboons. But it will save a few. Maybe this is our moral imperative.

A baboon park is not only the obvious answer, it is an essential cog in a growing mechanism that is being put in place to manage and protect the Peninsula baboon population. Its absence leaves a vacuum that weakens the entire machine.

What is a Baboon Park About?

Providing a safe haven to recuperating baboons and saving the lives of a few baboons, however, is not the ultimate role of a baboon park. The true role of a baboon park will be to slow down that juggernaut I spoke of earlier (a Sisyphean task, to be sure). It cannot be fought with money alone - its riches are endless (and ours pitiful). Even legislation is up for sale. No, the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal is education! And this is the most important role of a baboon park on the Peninsula.


We must tell, no, we must show people what is happening to baboons. We must show them that the writing is on the proverbial wall. If we look carefully we can see it, but it is not obvious to everyone. Bright lights, digital displays, porn on cell phones, or whatever the sensory distraction may be, all these things obfuscate the fine print. Undeniably, baboons are plentiful now; to the point of being pests (for some). But in the not too distant future, our children will be telling their skeptical grandchildren mythical stories about baboons running wild on the Cape Peninsula. The Peninsula is not an isolated example: baboons throughout Africa are at risk of being reduced to memories. All simply because we refuse to read the fine print.

Education Education

Much of the good work done on the Peninsula goes unnoticed. Esme Beamish gets a call about an injured baboon. She goes out with Hamish Currie and assesses the situation. Jenni Trethowan, the SPCA and the police help capture the baboon. The animal is treated. Predictably, there is a lot of scurrying about because no one knows what to do with it. All in all, a huge amount of activity. But most of it is hidden from the public eye. People don't know what is going on and they therefore don't get the plight of the baboons. The coverage in the media is sensational and usually limited to stories about when things go wrong; these stories often involve savage slurs; personalities reign supreme. The baboon story is lost.

A baboon park can play a vital role in more than just educating people about the marvels of baboons. It can help create empathy for their plight. A baboon park will be a visible symbol of the harsh reality that baboons face every day. Moreover, it will be emblematic of the challenges to conservation efforts all over the world. It can serve as a magnet to draw people closer to their natural environment, and in so doing, help propagate the paradigm shift that is essential to save our natural heritage.

Education Education Education

Can a baboon park achieve this by its mere presence? Of course not. It will take a lot of work, blood and sweat. But it is the first step towards holding baboons up on high and saying loudly that these animals are worth it! Through a baboon park and educational center, we can reveal the marvels of baboon behaviour and ecology and demonstrate how they can play a vital role in education - at ALL levels. Almost every aspect of biology and conservation can be taught by using baboons as a model. And what an appropriate model! Baboons are ubiquitous in Africa. Almost everyone has had some sort of experience with a baboon, and if they haven't, they certainly have ample opportunity to see them first hand.

Education often fails because it is too…abstract. I remember being taught stuff that, to this day, is meaningless. However, a well thought out lecture based on an entertaining baboon troop would most certainly have captured my attention! And this is really what education is about - captivating the attention of kids who believe they have far better things to do with their time.

So let's captivate our kids, teach them biology, science, and conservation principles, and at the same time instill in them empathy for their natural environment. And incidentally, saving a baboon or two along the way is OK with me.

"He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke". –Darwin (1838)

Darwin was a clever bugger.