Baboon on a post above Constantia photo by Shahrina Chowhury“Your Cape Peninsula Baboons have gone far beyond the performance, in terms of strategic thinking, of any others in the world!  On the other hand, this must be the only place in the world where you can call a meeting about baboons and have people thinking about them in a positive way!”:  Dr. Shirley C Strum, anthropologist at the University of California and Director of the Usaso Ngiro Baboon project in Kenya.  The Baboon Liaison Group invited Dr. Strum who has been studying baboons for 38 years to share her experience and knowledge with interested members of the South Peninsula public and representatives from the organisations involved in baboon management.  Her well attended lecture entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Smart – what makes Baboons so difficult to manage?”  opened the discussion about a more assertive approach to keeping baboons out of residential areas. 

In a fascinating anecdotal rich account of her research she related how baboons in Kenya responded to increased competition for land with humans by resorting to crop raiding.  From a baboon point of view, raiding is not aberrant behaviour but simply a new and highly remunerative form of foraging.  As master strategists, baboons are able to assess the costs and benefits of raiding crops in Kenya or homes and gardens in Cape Town.  They assess the risks both as individuals and as troops which is why some do and some don’t.  While the Cape Peninsula chacma baboons  are a different species to those in Kenya, the problems of human / baboon conflict are just the same – except that increasingly Cape Peninsula baboons have taken raiding to the next level where they now have little fear of people and are learning to open doors, break windows etc.

Dr. Strum emphasized that the key issue from a Baboon’s point of view is that of reward vs risk – which is also the key to finding a management strategy. In spite of the risks of injury, baboons choose to raid because of the high calorie food rewards.  Recent x-rays of three injured male baboons brought in for treatment revealed an average of 70 pieces of metal (air gun pellets) in their bodies.  This is strong evidence that the risks for baboons are high and that current management approaches are not protecting them.

On the benefit side, the advantages of a successful raid mean more calories with less time spent foraging.  Less time spent foraging means more time to strengthen social networks which are essential for baboon wellbeing.  The increased calories for less energy expended also means that successful raiders put on more body mass – a distinct advantage for males moving up in the pecking order.  More calories for females translates into them reaching reproductive age earlier and reduces the time between pregnancies which increases the population growth rate.  The Tokai troop which has a large number of habitual farm and home raiders and has the advantage of pine nuts has increased its population significantly to 14 baboons per square hectare.  This is way above the `natural stock rate ‘ of 1 to 2 baboons per ha² as measured in a `natural‘ environment in the South Peninsula.  (pers comm: Dr Justin O’Riain, findings of the Baboon Research Unit, UCT)

There is enough land in the TMNP south of Constantia Neck to support the current baboon population at a `natural stocking rate ‘.  However,  if they stopped raiding which they need to do, the baboon troops, and specifically the Tokai Troop, would need to redistribute themselves across the TMNP and possibly repopulate areas such as the Silvermine Section where they were shot out in the past.  They would also need access to the intertidal zone to forage for shell fish which provides them with essential protein lacking in a pure fynbos diet.

Discussion about the role of baboons in the ecology of Cape Fynbos resulted in significant issues being highlighted. Apparently, the role of baboons in Cape Fynbos is not well understood, an omission that surely needs to be addressed given the priority of finding a management solution that works for baboons.  It was pointed out TMNP is a managed rather than a natural system for baboons as their natural predators, mainly leopards, are extinct on the South Peninsula and they are an isolated population.   Prof Eugene Moll speaking from the audience expressed concern that while baboons are an iconic species, they are not endangered and forcing them to stay in the TMNP, at their current population numbers, could endanger the endemic and already threatened South Peninsula Fynbos vegetation, specifically the flowering bulbs.  

The bottom line to reducing the conflict between baboons and people is to keep the baboons in the TMNP.  A failure to keep them in natural areas is a failure to manage them as wild animals with a role to play in nature.  The way to do this is to reduce the benefits (make sure that raiding does not get rewarded) and to increase the costs (implement measures to chase or keep baboons out).  Baboons almost never raid in Ocean View. Why?  The benefits are simply not worth the risks – relatively low rewards and a community that does not tolerate baboon raids.  So the baboons make a strategic decision to skirt around Ocean View to easier pickings in neighbouring communities.

While the good work of the Baboon Monitors is acknowledged, the programme costs R9 million per year.  Julia Woods the City of Cape Town’s Manager of Bio-diversity Management cautioned the meeting that this cost for the protection of just one species is not sustainable.  I have heard other city officials complaining that the cost to the City of managing Baboons is impacting negatively on the availability of funds to manage the City’s Nature Reserves. (Editors comment)  Baboon Monitors can only part of the solution.  They can not be everywhere all the time attempting to second guess what new strategy particularly risk tolerant baboons are testing.  In some areas, baboons raid late into the evening – long after the Baboon Monitors are off duty.  Have the Baboons worked out that the risk of being attacked by a leopard no longer exists?

Electric Fences for Baboon Hot Spots.

Erecting electric fences around communities in baboon hotspots and a pilot project to shoot baboons with paintball guns were discussed.  Electric fences were the focus of a lot of discussion.  People raised the following concerns:

– would they really work to keep baboons out,

– who would pay for them,

– what would happen to the suburbs on either end of the electric fences which may become new targets for baboons,

– how would baboons that are used to the high calories of successful raiding survive in the natural environment, and

– would other animals such as grysbok, porcupine, genet, lynx etc also be contained inside a fenced off TMNP `Zoo’

While the concerns are many and there appear to be real benefits, a pilot project is required to test the viability of keeping baboons out using electric fences.  Zwaanswyk, in Tokai behind the Steenberg Golf Estate, is a baboon hotspot and is currently being registered as a Special Rates Area to pilot the use of electric fences to keep baboons out.  Their fence will apparently cost in the order of R1.5 million.  To give an indication of the total costs involved to fence off the southern section of TMNP, Dr O’Ryan gave an estimate of R18 million which is equal to two years of Baboon Monitoring.  Although baboon monitoring at access points will be ongoing as will fence maintenance, the authorities believe that an electric fence may be a more sustainable option.   A key question will be the funding of electric fences in the future.  The City does not currently have the mandate to pay for infrastructure on private land, and TMNP did not voice an opinion on who should pay for the fences.  John Green the Chairman of WESSA and one of the BOG of the Zwaanswyk Special Rates Area warned that the issue of the community paying for the electric has divided their community and generated an unexpected and very unpleasant degree of acrimony amongst the residents.  He made it clear that without real buy-in from the authorities, the option of using electric fences was not likely to be widely supported by other suburbs.

So where to from here – what came out of the meeting?

There was no formal set of outcomes, so I have, perhaps cheekily, listed the actions which were discussed and which are and /or need to be taken forward.

The effectively of the Zwaanswyk Electric Fence needs to be carefully assessed, as well as a funding model to assist communities if electric fencing is a viable option.

People who feed, harbour or harm baboons need to be prosecuted and charged so that law enforcement becomes just that – visible effective enforcement.

More assertive means of keeping baboons out of residential areas need to be implemented. As Dr. Strum said, increase the costs of raiding for the baboons – not by injuring them, but by frightening them and making the reward for their efforts (time and energy invested) so low so that they stay in the TMNP.

An appropriate and effective community based strategy to keep baboons out is needed for each suburb frequented by baboons based on the factors which make each suburb attractive to baboons while respecting their right to exist in the abutting TMNP.

Ongoing research to understand the role of baboons in the TMNP and how to manage a healthy baboon population.

Baboons are a hugely emotional issue in the South Peninsula  – because so many of us are concerned about finding a win-win solution.  So forgive me for ending this record of the discussion on an emotional note.  I do not know the role that baboons play in Nature, I simply accept that they have a role as I acknowledge their right to exist as fellow creatures.  By virtue of their intelligence and dexterity they have continued to survive surrounded by the City of Cape Town where they play the role of reminding us that urbanisation in its present form comes at a cost.  While fynbos gets flattened by development, leopard toads are roadkill, owls poisoned, snakes stoned and the shy creatures simply vanish, baboons `Rage and Rage against the dying of the light’ of understanding that alone on earth humans are utterly alone and incomplete.

To see what home owners can do to make our homes unattractive to baboons go to:

KimK   26 February 2012