Almost 100 Kommetjie residents attended the recent community meeting hoping to hear what the management plan is for our Slangkop troop. The meeting was MC’d by Ward Councilor Simon Leill-Cock (SLC) with presentations by Prof J. O’Riain (JOR) and Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS) area manager Cath Shutte (CS).
Kommetjie CARBS (Councilor Appointed Representatives Baboons South) Susan Litten was instrumental in organizing the meeting and her efforts to proactively inform residents about baboons was acknowledged and thanked.
The meeting kicked off with a presentation by JOR who reminded attendees that many of us had sat in a similar meeting 8 years prior debating the same issues.
JOR spent a large portion of time dealing with the complex issue of pathogens and disease spread from baboons to humans and humans to baboons. It is not clear why so much emphasis is given to this issue as the real risk of contamination is actually extremely low, but just the notion of getting Hepatitis A from a baboon is enough to worry some residents and the inclusion of the corona virus in the presentation seemed a little irresponsible. (At the last community meeting where the pathogen data was presented a resident left with the idea that we were all going to get Ebola from the baboons…)
In truth you simply need basic hygiene and good old common sense; don’t go around handling baboon poo or saliva and if the baboons have left you a couple of calling cards, wear some gloves, dispose of the feces and then wash the space and your hands thoroughly.
I wish other issues raised could be dealt with as easily, but it seems that there were more questions than answers. A number of the audience could not hear what was being said and left, some people left early as they felt it was “the same old thing” and a large portion attendees felt that issues were not taken seriously or were not answered.
Paintballing and Stress
One of the consistent themes raised however, was that people are unhappy about the excessive level of paintballing and the elevated risk to children, damage to property and the apparent negative effect it is having on the troop. The panel did not seem to think that the paintballing was problematic.
JOR responded to several expressed concerns about the welfare of the troop, explaining that samples of hormones from the da Gama troop were being analyzed and that would determine the baboon stress levels. I am not sure if this data can be extrapolated to include all other troops? From what HWS presented it seems that the Slangkop troop has had an extended period of extremely stressful activity having been reportedly hunted and harassed in the Ocean View area where they were kept for nearly three years.
There was no data presented on how the Ocean View residents felt about having the baboons in their urban area for the past three years.
In reply to one question about the efficacy of the project and use of paintball guns, JOR stated that this was the best run project of its kind in the world, but could not answer where else in the world animals or wildlife are actively herded using paintballs or against which other project this one was compared.
Another of the concerns was the issue of the provision of water and the option of food provisioning to keep the baboons on the mountain. The City Manager (Owen Wittridge – OW) stated that they were not allowed to put water on TMNP land.
Historically there were water points at different locations on Slangkop, the first point (at the Blockhouse) was found to be too close to the village and so the point was moved to a Jojo tank along the jeep track. This tank was destroyed in fires and Baboon Matters have repeatedly offered to replace it. The problematic lack of water during the summer months has been acknowledged by the role players and water tanks were provided previously so it should be a task that could be speedily implemented.
JOR pointed out that there is water available to the baboons if they (the baboons) chose to go to Kleinplaas dam or to Lewis Guy dam – but would the baboons be “allowed” to go to that area? Their movements are heavily controlled and if the baboons were to go to water access points they would probably head back to the spring above the Rasta camp, an area densely invaded with rooikrans and difficult to manage the baboons in, as CS pointed out.
The Slangkop troop could also look for water above Scarborough and Misty Cliffs, part of their traditional home-range, but I am not sure either village would welcome another troop coming into their village.
Water availability does not necessarily equate to baboons being allowed to utilize those sources.
Prior to the baboons arriving in Kommetjie I had offered suggestions as to where a water point might be placed, Baboon Matters had offered to pay for a Jojo tank and had liaised with the Volunteer Fire Fighters who had offered to fill the tank with water. Instead the HWS staff elected to place a water point in the Soetwater campsite meaning that the baboons have to now cross a busy road to go down to a recreational site which, although it is quiet over large portions of the year, it is always exceptionally busy over long weekends and the Easter holidays.
It is not clear why TMNP are allowed to dictate the provisioning of water for baboons within this very unusual circumstance of a national park within a city (or city within a national park). There are existing Heads of Agreement between the CoCT and SANparks and we are told that SANparks does have exceptions for parks that need water provisioning; why is the TMNP restriction not challenged or even put in the public domain for comment? It does not appear to be a transparent decision.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink..
The idea of food provisioning was dismissed, not only from the TMNP rules, but also as it is felt it that provisioning is not a long term solution. Scientists generally hold the view that if provisioned, the baboons would have increased fecundity levels and raise infants more efficiently. What is not accepted by the academic sector is that baboons are already provisioned by human derived foods– through our waste, from our gardens and occasionally from our houses.
Have the exceptional food rewards gained at the local food factory, over the past 15 years, shown any significant increase in fecundity and troop population?
It does not seem so, the Slangkop troop has only increased by 13 members in the twenty years of recorded data. (In 1999 there was 1 adult male, 14 adult females and 15 immatures; compared to HWS 2019 counts, where 1 adult male, 17 adult females and 25 immatures were recorded).
We know that there is a high mortality rate amongst the immature category of baboons and Slangkop is no different; as an example, the November 2019 HWS report records 2 births and 2 deaths for the troop. The overall increase of 13 baboons over 20 years can hardly be considered a burgeoning population despite the fairly continuous access to human derived foods.
I am always astonished at the reluctance to trial provisioning; we are prepared to trial paintballing, bear bangers and virtual fences – why not provisioning? Why not give it a “proper” try? The last experiment with the Waterfall troop could hardly be considered to be a significant trial as a mere handful of mealie kernels was used to lure the Waterfall troop away from the navy barracks where they can access loaves of bread and an abundance of fast food without too much effort.
I would think that if food provisioning worked, it might be a great deal easier for the service provider to ‘manage’ the troops with the least impact on other wildlife, and since the BTT are considering the implementation of birth control anyway, I don’t see how a potential increase in fecundity levels will impact the population?
A benefit that provisioning may offer is the potential to eliminate the pesky pathogens and deal with mange out breaks etc. by introducing medication at provisioning sites as needed; this tactic is used by many research and rehabilitation centers so has merit worth exploring. If provisioning did not work or show any improvement in managing the troops, then at least the BTT could say “We told you so” but in the meantime, we continue to debate the concept.
It seems to me that as we are attempting to manage one of the most intelligent primate species alongside another intelligent primate; both living with urban encroachment and in the midst of climate change – surely we should not be dependent on the “old rules”, but should be exploring a range of options that do not revolve around hurting, dominating or killing wildlife?
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The community observed that the WhatsApp location group was very effective at warning residents that baboons were in the area so that they could “close up” and be prepared. A suggestion that rangers could alert the WhatsApp group of the baboons location was dismissed as Dr Richardson stated that none of his staff has phones able to utilize WhatsApp and, therefore, could not warn the community when baboons were “on the way”.
In a positive response to this the residents undertook to warn each other of the baboons arrival through vuvuzelas and the Location Group.
NO to killing our baboons
An issue that the residents were not prepared to negotiate, however, was that of killing so called “problem” baboons. The meeting made it clear that none of the Slangkop baboons are to be singled out as more of a “problem” than others and that we do not accept any baboons being killed. SLC first agreed that no baboons would be killed but then said he could not be held accountable to management decisions of the troop.
The meeting firmly endorsed that we will not accept any baboons being killed in terms of the protocols.
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Fences – Virtual and Electric
The main focus of the evening was surely the discussion about use of fences, so much so that one resident expressed that he thought he had come to a sales pitch about electric fences…
Both JOR and CS detailed successes of the electric fences at Zwaanswyk and explained how the proposed fence would be positioned along the Kommetjie firebreak with the intention of keeping humans “in” and wildlife “out”. Based on the information given at the meeting, the baboon proof electric fence does seem a good option but points of concern such as the on-going costs for the maintenance of the fence or replacement of the fence in the event of a fire were not answered fully.
It was noted that despite baboon proof electric fences at Constantia vineyards, specific vineyards still detail baboon incursions to such a degree that they were awarded permits to hunt baboons on their properties.
From the BTT team present, the main concern about the electric fence was not the impact on other wild-life (whom they feel would be safer out of the village) but rather the cost of installation (costs of on-going maintenance were barely mentioned).
It was made clear that Kommetjie residents are expected to pay for the fence and it is suggested that the money can be raised through the formation of a Special Ratings Area, whereby it is expected that “someone” would have to go door to door to obtain 60% buy-in for this SRA. Once the SRA is established money is added to monthly rates and can be used for a variety of agreed community improvement projects.
It took Zwaanswyk 5 years to get their SRA formed after which the fence funded and erected, how long would it take Kommetjie? This would not be a quick solution.
Questions were asked about how a fence would affect the use of monitors and paintballing and it was noted that the overall budget costs would drop dramatically with fewer rangers and paintballs needed.
It seems that the CoCT and her expert decision makers have agreed that an electric fence is the preferred option, yet the city continue to spend millions of rand of rate payers money on a costly management system that many residents are unhappy with. Why does the CoCT not reapportion the ranger budget, have fences erected at relevant locations and run a more cost efficient baboon response and maintenance project?
The alternative solution offered is that of the Virtual Fence, a system whereby (very simplistically) baboons are collared and monitored; sound boxes are placed so that if the baboons cross a point extremely loud sounds of predator calls, animals in pain or other baboons fighting (for example) are played. The concept is that when the baboons hear these distressing noises, but cannot see the source of the sound, they run away from the sounds.
Dr Richardson sited the on-going success of the Virtual Fence project in Gordons Bay, but skimmed over its partial success at the Simons Town Waterfall and Rocklands areas. The recent use of the virtual fence in Hermanus was not mentioned; it seems that the virtual fence does not appear to be completely successful at this stage.
It is understood that there are always going to be differing success rates for different “tools” used in baboon management and the virtual fence may be one of the tools that is exceptionally successful in some areas but not in others.
What was not answered is, what is the impact on other wildlife when the loud distressing noises are played? Surely bokkies and caracals would also be petrified and run away? Have there been any studies at all on the impact of the virtual fence on birds and wildlife?
Where is the Management Plan?
For me, the take out from the Kommetjie meeting the lack of an overall comprehensive management plan and this must be seen as a significant failure on behalf of the Baboon Technical Team. The lack of a plan means that management is reactionary and repetitive as we deal with the same crisis on irregular basis. JOR pointed out that we had all met 8 years prior yet we sat again for a couple of hours, heard the inputs, asked some questions and left; there is no real “tomorrow solutions” or way forward.
The lack of planning was illustrated through the presentation by HWS where a detailed map of “problematic areas” showed areas where gangs of youth hunt the baboons, dog fighting occurs or the rangers are threatened. HWS have been dealing with the problem for an extended period of time, yet there was no proactive plan to relocate the troop back to Slangkop, no community meeting prior to the move, no water provision, no baboon proof bins etc.
We understand that the rangers had been held up at gun point and that the event exacerbated the move – yet the management team had been considering this move for months prior to the robbery, but simply had no proactive plans in place to ensure the troop moved back with minimal disruption to all the primates of the area.
The lack of a comprehensive management plan is highlighted by the lack of effective baboon proof bins, no by-laws, lack of effective on-going education, lack of signage and law enforcement. It is astonishing that in 1998 when primatologists Kansky and Gaynor arrived in the area they immediately identified the need for proper plans and through collective efforts and minimal resources of the Baboon Management Team significant steps were made to get compromise documents in place – we had the Brownlie Doc, the WWF Management Plan and Dr Kansky’s book on “Living with baboons” is still acknowledged as the most useful baboon information document of its kind.
Baboon Matters, with support of the Wildlife Animal Protection Forum SA, has been requesting a moratorium and a workshop to review and revise the current management through an inclusive workshop. It makes sense that this long running management project is objectively reviewed so that long term plans and a comprehensive (possibly compromise) document can be agreed on. At the moment we are hearing “bits and pieces” at community meetings where input from the BBT dominates and concerns, questions and ideas from the residents and stakeholders are kept to a minimum or are not answered fully.
There are some residents who feel frustrated that we have so many questions – but no solutions. But how can we arrive at fully understood solutions when we are not given all the information to make informed decisions?
We hear that birth control is to be implemented, yet our troops do not appear to have healthy ratios and there is grave concern about lack of genetic variation (we are in-breeding our baboons). We are told that electric or virtual fences are the best option – but no-one can tell us what impact the fences might have on our other wildlife neighbours, or (in the case of the electric fences) how they will be funded or maintained.
There has been much written on both social and printed media about the demise and loss of the Scarborough /Misty Cliffs troop, the situation is desperately sad and must be a wake-up call to all residents living in areas where baboons live too.
As we face ever increasing urban densification and intensified land use, we have to ask what the best long term solution for the baboons will be. Will we be looking at fences, birth control and provisioning or could we consider relocation of whole troops to be free roaming on safe land purchased for this specific goal? I first suggested the notion of relocating four of the peninsula troops to the BTT in 2016, perhaps it is time that we collectively consider this option?
Kommetjie Baboon Task Team
A small group of residents have met to form a practical hands on task team, the goal being to try to minimize some of the high level attractants in the village.
We hope to have proactive signage, a MacGyver team to help adapt garbage bins to be baboon proof, cages to contain waste installed at local businesses and a water provisioning point installed on Slangkop. The task team will also be looking at upgrading information brochures for residents and B&B’s.
If you could not attend the first informal meeting but want to help out with reducing the conflicts please email [email protected] and we will gladly welcome your help.
After nearly 20 years we are facing closure due to lack of funding! Please consider making a donation to enable us to continue working for baboons in crisis!