July 10, 2005
South Africa’s Cape Baboons Being Maimed
KOMMETJE, South Africa -- Georgie was bashed in the head and is missing part of his ear. Penny's right hand was mangled in a trap. Tammy's bullet-riddled leg had to be amputated. Golden Arrow was shot dead, leaving her infant to starve to death. The baboons of South Africa's Cape Peninsula are caught in a war with their human neighbors, who are sick of having their kitchens ransacked by marauding primates with an uncanny knack for breaking into houses.
"People love them or hate them. Very few people are ambivalent," says Jenni Trethowan of the local Baboon Matters Organization. "The hating community is the most vociferous."
As she speaks, William, a hefty 9-year-old male, leaps over the wall of a house and dances on the roof, oblivious to the frantic barking of dogs.
A whistle-blowing, stick-wielding baboon "monitor" finally chases William back into nearby woods to join the rest of the baboon troupe, who are dozing peacefully or foraging among the trees.
"He is so naughty," sighs Trethowan, who has named all the baboons in the area.
She manages nine monitors who try to keep baboons away from Kommetje and other populated areas near South Africa's wind-swept southern tip, seeking to reduce the potential for conflict with humans.
Trethowan says her project has helped reduce the number of baboons killed. Twenty-one were slain in 1999 and just eight last year.
But a spate of attacks hit the headlines in May. Trethowan reels off a list of baboon victims.
One baboon was shot and killed in a wealthy Cape Town suburb, reportedly by an irate homeowner.
Another, Golden Arrow, was found shot to death in a coastal village after Trethowan received threatening anonymous phone calls. The baboon's 5-day-old baby starved despite the efforts of his traumatized brother, Quizzie, to care for him, Trethowan says.
The conflict is a result of the throngs of camera-toting tourists who crowded this scenic part of the country and ignored warning signs that threaten fines for feeding the baboons. The animals got used to the treats and became increasingly aggressive in their search for more.
Dave Gaynor, a primatologist, says baboons get as much nutrition from a half loaf of discarded bread as from what they forage in four hours in the undergrowth.
"Once baboons know the value of human food, they will definitely go for human food," he says. "It's like having a permanently open candy store."
Nobody knows how many baboons are in South Africa, but most experts agree the numbers of the protected primates are dwindling as humans encroach on their living space. There are between 250 and 270 chacma baboons in 20 to 30 troupes around Cape Town.
While humans have resorted to violence, there are no known incidents of baboons attacking people. But even their defenders concede they can be intimidating.
National park rangers had to kill one large male at Cape Point last year after it became too aggressive about grabbing food out of cars.
"If they descend on a house and pull off the gutters, it can be scary," says Trethowan, who still has footprints on her stairwell from the last invasion. "They make a huge mess. They are destructive and tear things apart."
Many people who buy houses in the area are not warned by real estate agents that they are moving into a baboon hot spot, says Gavin Bell of the South African National Parks authority.
They are advised to keep trash in a secure place, close doors and windows, install burglar bars or electric fencing, uproot fruit trees and keep a high-pressure hose handy.
Bell says most people enjoy the baboons, but Diana Head isn't one of them.
A resident of the seaside village of Pringle Bay, Head removed all the gutters and had electrified fencing put up around her house after she found baboons trying to force open the upstairs windows.
She and her large Rhodesian ridgeback dog are active in a neighborhood watch group designed to chase off baboons. Locals also carry whistles to sound the alert if the 30-strong troupe comes near the village.
Pringle Bay, a popular whale watching spot where many Europeans have bought vacation homes, was in a virtual state of siege late last year after baboons repeatedly raided the local store and even invaded a children's nursery.
Things have calmed, Head says. The dominant male who led the raids - and specialized in removing sliding glass doors - apparently was replaced by a more placid baboon, she says.
Villagers also think there is a leopard in the region that may be acting as a deterrent.
"There are still opportunistic break-ins if you leave a window open," Head says. "They are so quick to spot anything, it's incredible."