Thursday, June 5, 2008

June 4, 2008. Cape Town, South Africa

On a visit to South Africa in April, I went on a Baboon Walk with Jenni Trethowan. A dedicated protector of animals, Trethowan launched Baboon Matters in 1998 to help improve relations between human residents and the wild baboon troops that live on the peninsula that juts south from Cape Town. Predictably, as humans moved in and began to build houses, grow crops and plant gardens, conflicts with the baboons grew. The baboons were labeled as “problem animals” and common “solutions” were to trap, shoot, poison or run over the baboons. Though their numbers declined, the wily baboons adapted to the persecution and their populations persisted. Today, Baboon Matters hires baboon monitors who move about with the troops and intervene to keep them off people’s properties, where the baboons may damage eaves and windows, strip trees of their fruit (can one blame them?), and occasionally break into homes to dine on easy kitchen pickings and leave smelly “gifts” for the home-owners. The monitors’ presence has reduced conflicts by about 85 percent. Most residents are tolerant or even welcoming of the baboons, but there are still those who angrily try to hurt or kill them. One of the females in the troop we followed is missing her right hand from an evil trap set many years ago by a resident, designed to amputate the hand as it was put into the trap for the bait. Four females lost their right hand to this trap. Slowed by their disability, the other three were killed trying to cross roads with a baby in their whole arm; the remaining survivor, Penelope, is currently raising her third child.

The baboons are wild but habituated to humans. We could stand or sit within two meters of some of them, and more than once I felt the fur of an adult brush against my leg as s/he ambled past. For most of the time they were relaxed, and one could hear individuals making reassuring grunts which appeared to function to let others know that they were nearby when out of view. I watched various foraging techniques, including swiping brush aside to find seeds beneath, pulling out roots to pluck burrowing insects (I think—their hands move so fast), digging in the dirt for some other buried treasures which were deftly plucked up and eaten, and sitting in trees leisurely sampling fruit. One juvenile near me spied a fat spider, calmly plucked her from her web, and bit off the body like a berry, leaving three or four twitching legs in the grass.

One of the females was pregnant, and her flat rump was bright red. Two or three other younger females were in estrous, as indicated by the shiny red swellings wobbling beneath their tails like oversize tomatoes. These damsels were quite solicitous of the two or three large adult males, who seemed mostly to ignore the ruby hindquarters presented to them by a standing female just a meter away. One of these females chased off another and while there was much yelping by the pursued one, there was no violence and little interest from the others. A more intense dispute with intense shrieks brought several troop members to their feet to see what was happening. A large male chased a screaming female who took refuge in a dense thicket while he barked menacingly at her. He looked very intimidating but we saw no incidents of physical violence. The only blood-shed witnessed was from my shin which I scraped during a clumsy descent of a large boulder.

By far the most joyous sight was the rambunctious play of five youngsters on a grassy hillside at the end of a residential street. They would scamper up the 10 meter slope then leap, roll, tussle or summersault their way down again. Flying ambushes, play bites and limb-tuggings were part of a stream of play that went on for at least 10 minutes. One could hear the thuds of their little bodies hitting the ground as they hurtled down the slope twisting and rolling in a grappling heap of as many as four individuals at a time. A leafy branch became the object of a three-way tug of war. The winner was soon left holding the branch while the other two scampered off; the branch lost its prize-status and the youngster dropped it to follow the others. When they ran back across the road a minute later, he once again grabbed the branch and the tug was on again. Animals at play are one of the most beautiful things to behold, for me. I was transfixed, and uplifted.