Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Walking with Baboons in the South Peninsula

Photo: Maryann Shaw

Originally published on

The mother and tiny baby emerged from the bushes and walked passed us, less than five meters away. It's such a cliche, but there really is something so adorable about newborn wild animals
She clung to her mother’s back, her pink little ears protruding, and the group of us quietly standing staring, was of equal fascination to this baby baboon.
We were otherwise of little interest to the rest of the troop we walked alongside for a couple of hours, on a lovely sunny winter Cape morning above Ocean View near Kommetjie on the South Peninsula
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No food policy
The morning started in the Glencairn office of Baboon Matters, with some history and information about the plight of the Chacma Baboon population in the Cape.
Our guide Jenni Trethowan has a very strict no foodstuff policy, so the baboons she encounters know they get no rewards from the groups coming to observe them on these guided tours.
This meant they were completely uninterested in us and went about their morning business of eating, grooming and then play-fighting - allowing us to get very close and really see their interaction.
And as someone who has only seen baboons at Cape Point who are aggressive towards tourists whom they associate with food - these relaxed, seemingly carefree animals are a delight to observe.
Primate patterns
We were not constantly on the move; at first the baboons hung out in one spot while eating. Their preferred snacks included pine nuts and uprooted bulbs. Extracting the nuts from the pine cones appears to be a lot of hard work.
The creatures then moved towards the river after we had observed them for a good hour or so.
When they reached the river, they drank, but also started play fighting and tumbling down the hill as they did so, which was very entertaining to watch.
The dynamics between the “teenagers” and young ones was fun to see, and a protective female intervened when one male “teen”seemed to be bullying the others a bit.
Regarded as pesky
Jenni founded Baboon matters in 1990 and is passionate about helping the struggling population of Chacma Baboons on the South Peninsula in the Western Cape.
Due to their close proximity to the suburban areas of Cape Town, the baboons have learned bad behavior. Easily rewarded by foodstuffs, they are now regarded as pests by most of the community as they enter peoples’ homes 'in search of their reward'.
Residents in some areas feel like prisoners in their homes as the baboons can be aggressive and very scary.
Keeping foodstuff under lock and key
The idea of getting your keys out to get some milk from the fridge for your morning cup of tea is hardly appealing and may seem extreme but it’s the success formula of one Cape resident. He has again been able to leave his doors and windows open, by literally putting locks on his fridge and kitchen cupboards.
Baboon lookout duty
Jenni also works closely with the Baboon Monitoring Project. This organization began 1999 and now employs twenty men from the nearby community of Masiphumelele as baboon monitors.
Their lookout duty involves herding the troops back into their natural habitats to ensure that baboons are kept out of the villages for 85% of the time.
The Baboon Monitors are solely paid via funding and they work incredibly long hours, especially in summer from 6am to 6pm.
Twenty-five percent of Baboon Matter's net proceeds are given to the monitoring project, which goes a long way towards keeping the baboons out of trouble and thus changing the perception that baboons are nothing more than pests.
Walking with these animals allows you to see them as they should be, a playful group of primates, eating from the Fynbos and wandering free.
The guides take no more than 8 people on the walks, but will take a group as small as two. The fee for adults is R 250, with children under 12 costing R 125.