Baboon Matters heads North

by Jenni Trethowan

By now anyone who knows me, knows that I love baboons and that I love to see baboons in the wild.
People who travel with me need endless patience as I make them turn back, or reverse and stop as I delight in sightings of baboons. I marvel at the moms, count the kids and consider the strength of the male baboons. Baboons make me feel joy, so you can imagine my excitement and enthusiasm at the thought of finding baboons up in the far western and northern Cape provinces as we embarked on our recent road trip.

Sadly (astonishingly?), despite travelling over 3000km, we only spotted baboons on four occasions – one sighting of a few skinny baboons outside of Springbok, a small troop outside of Kathu, a lovely looking troop near to Postmasberg and then a few scattered members of a small troop near the Swartberg Mountain pass.We travelled along national roads, farm roads and dirt roads, and travelled from dawn to dusk – all options were covered so one would have thought we would see baboons, right? Not only was it disappointing for me when we saw so few baboons, it is also deeply worrying – where are the baboons?

Across the country, specific areas report “population explosions” or high densities of baboons “above the normal range” – firstly what is the normal range for baboons in a land as diverse in biodiversity as South Africa, and secondly, how are the baboon numbers being monitored? Do any of the conservation authorities actually know how many baboons they have in the different provinces? If not, how can “bag limits” and lethal management options even be considered?

From our observations on this short trip, which I admit was in no way a scientific expedition, I would suggest that far from being abundant, baboon numbers appear to down.
It seems logical that baboons will congregate where there is food and water – especially in the face of one of the worst droughts in over a 100 years. So perhaps farming areas and plantations are not seeing an increase in numbers of baboons, but are seeing fragments of baboon troops coming together into areas where they can find food and water.

The Kelly vehicle had been “branded” with Baboon Matters logos for the trip and of course we all wore our “baboon gear” as we were working, so it was clear who we were and a lot of people engaged with us; asking about our work and telling us about their encounters with baboons. One lovely farmer from the Bloemfontein area reported that for the first time in living memory a small group of 6 baboons had recently found their way to their farm – and the farmer was delighted to see them. The straggling bunch of baboons are doing no damage – just roosting in trees, drinking from the reservoir and eating from the veld.

We are currently busy with reports from the trip and will shortly offer a comprehensive overview of the workshops and the meetings, but whilst looking through some of the images, it was the photographs taken in Dingleton that I thought best illustrated the plight of baboons in South Africa. The photos show a beautiful young male perched atop a post, mine dumps in front, razor wire below and a derelict village behind.
This photo is just an analogy for baboons everywhere; there is rapid encroachment – whether it be mines, farms, plantations or urban sprawl. We are in the midst of the worst recorded drought across the country so everyone is suffering but it just seems that some suffer less equally than others.

Perhaps, maybe, we can put aside outdated categorizations of baboons; perhaps if we stop vilifying them and instead work towards comprehensive solutions, we can find a way to live alongside each other?
I believe that the drought, the pressure on the land and the desperate need for change can result in positive shifts in thinking. I hope that our opportunistic primate cousins can survive the current onslaught, it would be a dreadful day when we simply don’t see baboons anywhere anymore and no longer hear the resonant sound of baboons barking in the mountains and fields……….