With increased habitat overlap between humans and baboons and escalating levels of commensalism and conflict, some have suggested provisioning as a way to draw baboons away from urban areas and ‘satiate’ them, thereby keeping them out of urban areas and gardens and reducing their reliance on human-derived foods. To some, the establishment of a ‘baboon restaurant’ or ‘feeding station’ sounds like a great solution as it can be implemented quickly and there are likely to be immediate effects. It is also viewed as a potential solution that avoids the ethical dilemmas associated with one possible alternative solution, the euthanasia or culling of ‘problematic’ baboons. However, in most cases provisioning is neither a good idea nor a sustainable solution. Provisioning is most certainly not a 'quick fix' as it can potentially lead to far bigger problems down the road!
Provisioning is often rationalized as a response to a presumed food shortage in the baboons' natural habitat, i.e., it is thought that baboons raid homes and gardens because they don't have enough natural foods to forage on. This line of thinking is problematic in three ways:
1. Baboon raiding occurs as a result of behavioural changes in the baboons themselves: baboons gradually lose their fear of humans while also gradually discovering the ease with which they can gain access to human foods. When baboons receive or acquire food from humans and do not receive sufficient deterrents to their raiding efforts, they begin to associate humans with easily-acquired food and spend more and more of their time near human habitation awaiting a free meal. These changes in baboon behaviour are a natural outgrowth of the greater contact between baboons and humans as humans encroach upon baboons' natural habitat, and are exacerbated by the deliberate feeding of baboons by people (most often tourists). This process is occurring in baboon troops all over Africa.
2. A shortage of natural foods in the baboons' environment is NOT the main reason that baboons seek human-derived foods. In several baboon populations, troops that subsist on natural foods and troops eating human-derived foods (garbage, crops, etc.) live side by side in the same habitat with the same natural foods available. If both troops have access to the same natural foods, and one raids while the other does not, then clearly the availability of natural foods is not a causal factor. Rather, baboons raid crops and garbage because they are easier to obtain, more digestible (processed) and higher in calories (and carbohydrates in particular, i.e., a source of quick energy) compared to the foods that baboons naturally eat. For animals that forage for survival, the small, already-processed, highly caloric packages of food produced by humans are very attractive and far more rewarding than naturally-foraged foods! (see Causes of Commensalism interactive diagram) Habitat destruction by humans may contribute to crop raiding and garbage eating in some populations of baboons, but there are many populations where habitat destruction is not an issue and baboons still raid. Thus, before drawing the conclusion that a shortage of natural food in the baboons' environment is an underlying factor behind raiding and commensalism, we need scientific data on the natural foraging patterns of specific troops to determine if they currently experience a seasonal shortage of food in their natural habitat and/or whether human encroachment on their habitat is an issue.
3. Provisioning wild baboons carries with it many potential problems, including increased aggression, disease transmission, and increased risk of injury to baboons and humans. These and other potential consequences of provisioning are outlined below. In many cases, these outcomes are simply a more extreme version of the problems that arise when baboons incorporate human-derived foods into their diet.
Potential Consequences of Provisioning:
Food patches increase competition and aggression.
Evidence from both natural populations and captivity shows that baboons respond to concentrated food resources by engaging in higher levels of aggressive competition, which can lead to changes in social dynamics, more despotic dominance hierarchies, and a higher chance of injury and death (1). By providing the baboons with a concentrated food resource, we would thus be increasing levels of competition, changing patterns of social behaviour, and increasing the chance of mortality for individual baboons.
Human-derived foods may have negative effects on baboon health.
Depending on the type of food used for provisioning, it could have negative effects on health as well. As noted above, human foods are generally more processed and higher in fat and calories than the foods that baboons forage on naturally. This can lead to unexpected health effects: for example, baboons at Amboseli in Kenya that subsist largely on food from garbage dumps are 50% heavier with 21% more body fat and higher concentrations of serum insulin and cholesterol compared to wild-foraging troops, suggesting a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (2). In addition to diseases related to nutrient content of foods, baboons can also acquire infectious diseases such as tuberculosis from eating human-derived foods and food waste.
Extra food will lead to increased population growth.
Deliberate provisioning of food to wild monkey populations elsewhere, in the absence of the negative human-wildlife interactions that also usually accompany commensalism (e.g., injuries and deaths on roads, human-transmitted diseases), leads to population expansion and unnaturally large troop sizes. Examples of this are Japanese macaques in Japan and rhesus macaques both in India and in semi-free-ranging environments such as the island of Cayo Santiago off the coast of Puerto Rico. This occurs in part because food that is easily acquired, i.e., without having to travel and forage for it, will lead to weight gain and faster reproduction. Human foods are also usually higher in calories and fat – and processed and thus easier to digest – compared to naturally-foraged foods. Thus, the frequent consumption of human-derived foods will influence reproductive parameters, life history variables, and population growth rates. For example, at Amboseli in Kenya, baboons with regular access to food from a garbage dump grow faster, mature earlier, and give birth more often (i.e., have shorter inter-birth intervals) compared to wild-foraging troops. In addition, crop-raiding baboons in Nigeria have shorter inter-birth intervals than wild-foraging baboons in the same region (3). All of these changes in reproduction and life history lead to increased rates of population growth. Thus, if we deliberately provision baboons, we may inadvertently increase their population size. With an increase in population size comes the inevitable increase in levels of commensalism and greater baboon-human conflict as some of those baboons turn to raiding.
It is important to realize, however, that seeing more baboons around your home is NOT necessarily an indication of increased baboon population growth in your area. More likely, it simply reflects a decreased fear of humans combined with increased raiding opportunities – i.e., you see more baboons around simply because they are spending more time in urban areas waiting for free food!
Provisioning will affect more than one baboon troop.
If we provide one ‘baboon restaurant’ to one troop, this would likely draw other troops to it as well. Baboons are not territorial and multiple troops often use the same resources. We might therefore end up changing home ranges of other troops in the area, thereby increasing contact and levels of competition among troops. This could have long-term consequences for population dynamics and population size, and would most certainly lead to higher rates of infanticide (with increased contact among troops and males more often coming into contact with infants that they did not sire).
We are not just feeding the baboons, but influencing the entire ecosystem.
A ‘baboon restaurant’ will not just feed the baboons; it will provide food to any form of wildlife that finds it. We can thus expect the same behavioral, reproductive, and health effects in these other species. Even if it were just the baboons that found the food, the resultant population expansion could impact the ecology of the entire region.
Provisioning of disease and parasites as well?
Provisioning in concentrated areas may well increase the risk of parasite and disease transmission between species. This may occur due to contamination from fecal matter and cross-transmission of parasites between species that would not normally interact.
Provisioning simply promotes what we are trying to prevent!
Perhaps most importantly, provisioning baboons reinforces the two factors most responsible for commensalism in the first place: a decreased fear of humans and an increased association between humans and food. Baboons are highly intelligent animals and they learn very quickly that humans provide food, and it is this association that results in baboons raiding houses, cars, and backpacks. Deliberate provisioning of baboons in order to prevent them from seeking food from humans thus seems to be a bit of a backwards approach in this context.
We are changing what a baboon is and does.
Feeding on human-derived foods increases a baboon's feeding efficiency. As a result, baboons that feed on human foods do not need to spend as much time foraging as baboons that feed only on naturally-foraged foods. A concentration of high-quality food in one area also leads to reduced home range sizes and travel distances (4). The reasons for this are simple: if provided with a high-quality food resource that meets most of their daily nutrient requirements, baboons do not need to spend as much time traveling and foraging, activities that typically consume most of their day. Extra food gives baboons more time for non-subsistence activities, such as social behaviour, aggression, and even raiding (which is usually not a response to hunger but to easy rewards – i.e., it’s far more efficient than spending all day foraging!).
Baboons are wild animals, and everything they do relates to their ecology, i.e., their interactions with their natural environment. Innumerable field studies of wild baboons have shown that virtually all aspects of baboon sociality are influenced by the availability of food resources in their natural environment (5). For example, most baboon females form strong social bonds with one another, reinforced by close proximity and grooming behaviour. Social bonds are extremely important to baboon females and increase their ability to raise healthy and surviving offspring (6). These bonds are thought to have evolved among baboon females because they help them compete for spatially concentrated food resources that are in limited supply. By altering the availability of food resources for a particular baboon population, we are thus potentially altering the ecological basis of their patterns of social bonding and possibly changing their behaviour in as yet unknown ways. While this will not matter to most people, it is an alarming consequence for those of us who are seeking to understand baboon sociality for what it is and who want to appreciate baboons for just what they are - baboons.
Summary and Conclusions
All ‘solutions’ to the problem of raiding baboons will have consequences. Some may result in a financial burden on the community (e.g., with the hiring of baboon monitors), some may result in the removal of individual baboons, resultant social changes in the troop itself, or removal of a whole troop. All of these outcomes are minor compared to the possible consequences of a provisioning strategy that is not well thought-out. A poorly implemented provisioning strategy may not only impact the social dynamics, feeding ecology, and reproduction of one baboon troop but could also have far-reaching effects on the entire baboon population and surrounding ecosystem. Provisioning could also lead to increased population growth and thereby indirectly contribute to the large-scale culling of baboon troops when their size and number exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment.
An alternative to provisioning would be to restrict baboon access to human-derived food. This would effectively decrease the baboons’ incentive to enter human areas, while raising the appeal of natural areas without the need to provision and avoiding the potential pitfalls mentioned above.
This does not mean that provisioning will absolutely not work as a potential baboon management strategy. But if it is implemented, this must be done in the context of a well-planned, carefully monitored program located far away from human habitation and a long-term plan must be in place that specifies how provisioning will continue (who, what, how, and with what funds) or what will be done when it is discontinued. Any provisioning strategy must also include restriction of baboon access to human-derived foods, otherwise attempts to use provisioning to draw baboons away from urban areas will not be effective (7). Most importantly, observational research must document the consequences of provisioning so as to detect and quickly resolve unintended consequences if and when they occur. Anyone who aims to implement provisioning must demonstrate an understanding of all of the above potential problems and show how they will mitigate these factors so as to maximize the chances of success rather than simply exacerbating human-baboon conflict. The bottom line is that people should NEVER feed baboons in any context – as tourists, in gardens, or as part of a management strategy – without thinking about the consequences!
References cited above:
1: van Schaik 1989; Isbell 1991; Gore 1992, 1993; Barton 1993; Saito 1996; Sterck 1996; Boinski et al 2002; Koenig 2002; King and Cowlishaw 2009
2: Altmann et al 1993; Kemnitz et al 2002
3: Bishop et al 1981; Altmann and Alberts 2003b; Higham et al 2009b
4: Forthman Quick 1986; Altmann and Muruthi 1988; Forthman-Quick and Demment 1988; Muruthi et al 1991; Bronikowski and Altmann 1996
5: Dunbar 1992, 1993a; Barton et al 1996; Bronikowski and Altmann 1996; Barton 2000; Hill and Dunbar 1998, 2002; Henzi and Barrett 2003, 2005; Alberts and Altmann 2006
6: Silk et al 2003, 2009
7: Kaplan et al 2011
Full reference list available on References page.
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