Baboon management plan under spotlight

Kommetjie’s baboon Kataza near Tokai forest. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

ESME BEAMISH, a consultant on baboon behavioural ecology with the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa, who has worked with various baboon-management contractors over 15 years, examines the City’s baboon programme.

The City of Cape Town’s Urban Baboon Program (UBP) has recently been criticised, with some alleging that the methods used are both inhumane and ineffective, and questioning the overall success of the programme.

But what are the criteria for success and how well has the programme performed against those?

The main goal of the UBP has since 1999 been to ensure that the peninsula baboon population was sustainable with reduced conflict between humans and baboons.

It was hoped that realising these goals would not only improve baboon welfare and conservation but reduce the risks to human health, safety and damage to property.

So, is the population sustainable? In 1999, the peninsula baboon population was under threat with 365 baboons in 10 troops, four of which had no males. By 2020, the population had increased to 580 baboons in 15 troops and all troops have at least one adult male.

The population is thus not only sustainable but has grown by 215 individuals (59%), which is considerably more than the 70 baboons that primatologist Dr David Gaynor had hoped for back in 1999.

Even more remarkable is that this growth has been achieved despite the rapidly rising tide of humanity and further loss of natural land.

Reduced human-baboon conflict and improved baboon welfare are less easy to measure.

Before the current programme began in 2011, 60% of all baboon deaths were attributed to residents living in baboon-affected areas.

Baboons were being killed by guns, dogs, poison and cars. Such deaths are of great concern from a wildlife welfare perspective because they cause uncontrolled harm and much suffering to the animal prior to death.

This period was characterised by poor funding, weak management structures, poor education of the general public in matters baboon and a service provider without any professional wildlife or conservation qualifications.

The period 2009-2012 saw the appointment of the first professional service provider, improved funding and management structures and a vocal and pro-active public stakeholder group.

Research findings were shared with the authorities and public education improved.

Human-induced deaths reduced to 40%, still unacceptably high, but heading in the right direction.

From 2012 onwards, substantial improvements in welfare were evident. The combination of baboonproof electric fences and a more organised and effective team of field rangers, who were using paintball markers instead of rocks and sticks, kept baboons out of dangerous areas for longer.

Inhumane causes of death linked to residents dropped to 20% of all deaths – a 40% reduction from the early era.

In short, the City of Cape Town is presiding over a baboon programme that provides employment and skills training for 60 rangers and which has resulted in more baboons with improved welfare, spending more time in Table Mountain National Park, despite an increasing human population.

How does the public reconcile these facts with the recent allegations of inept and inhumane management methods and a failed programme?

The answer is simply that to some, sharing space with baboons and never scaring them from town is considered success, and to euthanise a baboon with poor welfare, is always a failure.

Similar ideological clashes are apparent in the management of domestic animals in Cape Town with some welfare organisations routinely euthanising animals with poor welfare prospects while others never do.

These approaches both have their merits, but, for the most part, the differences among supporters of these different approaches are irreconcilable, for they represent deep-rooted ideological/ethical differences.

The clear disparity between the City of Cape Town’s UBP’s remarkable success relative to the stated goals and the disparaging comments by a sector of the public may thus simply reflect the different ideologically versions of success.

There is no other city in Africa which has invested as much time, effort and money in ensuring that a free-ranging primate population that was on the brink of extinction is now thriving and needs contraception. For many this is a rare success story in the Anthropocene and one that needs sharing.