Being a Baboon Dad

A beautiful image of George Baboon posted on the Baboon Matters page on Father’s Day got me thinking about what it’s like to be a baboon father. Chacma baboons live in strictly hierarchical families and while it may be tough being a low ranking baboon, troops are also incredibly loyal and if one baboon is in trouble, the whole family will come to her defense.

I was lucky to get to meet George and his family when Baboon Matters was still able to offer the walking tours. I got to sit on a hilltop with Jenni and the troop and watch them go about their day. George baboon was a particularly gentle boy and a very loving father. The life of a baboon father, even then, was very different than what it might have been for one living out in the bush with only natural threats lurking: leopards, droughts, rival males. George had bigger things to worry about like houses being built higher and higher on the mountain, roads and cars and unfriendly dogs. Things he probably didn’t understand very well and could do very little about. But with his family on the hilltop he had some peace.

Winds have changed and there is now new management and new protocols in place. The Cape Peninsula has become a very scary world to live in for baboon fathers. The protocol means that all adult male baboons who are repeat raiders and show no response to aggressive aversion tactics are allowed to be ‘euthanized’. This started with lone males and alpha males and has spread to all males and now females as well. The theory behind the protocol being that by removing ‘naughty’ baboons they won’t get a chance to teach the good baboons how to be bad baboons.

The fundamental problem with this protocol, one that Baboon Matters has been pointing out for years, is that the dominant baboon is not raiding because he is the only one who knows how to raid, he is raiding because he is the only one who is allowed to raid. Chacma baboon society is structured around hierarchy and food and therefore it’s the highest-ranking baboon, not the worst behaved one, who gets to dominate the food source. And with poor waste management and houses that aren’t baboon proofed that food source might be in someone’s bin or on their kitchen counter.

Fred baboon was a prime example of this flawed logic. Fred was an alpha male baboon who had been getting into cars to steal food from tourists (tourists who has previously fed him and continued to leave their windows open and doors unlocked). So the authorities decided to load him in a truck and get him put down. Jenni and I went to the vet where we knew they were holding him but they insisted we leave. Fred’s death was a great loss for his family and I felt it deeply too. Did this brutal method of management work? No it did not because now without Fred enforcing the hierarchy Force and Merlin, two other big males, could help themselves to the goodies they could find in cars. This means a father who cared deeply about his family and was taken from them and killed unnecessarily. Besides severely disrupting troop structure killing an alpha male also leaves the infants vulnerable to infanticide from a new male coming in.

There is a lot that is scary and unpredictable in this world for baboon fathers today and I realize that this is a situation that many human fathers encounter as well. Feeling like you might not be able to protect your family is a terrible feeling and one I wish no father ever had to experience. What if instead of trying to create a ‘landscape of fear’ those with power focused on creating greater security and safety for all primates, human and non-human alike?
That’s a world George baboon would have approved of.

Written by Noelle Oosthuizen

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