Busting common myths about baboons

A baboon with a mouthful of mushroom adopts an aggressive stance as indicated by the raised eyebrows, circled in yellow.

You’re likely to face more of a threat from a baboon with raised eyebrows than one with bared teeth, says Joselyn Mormile.

Ms Mormile, from NCC Environmental Services, the City of Cape Town’s baboon-management contractor, bust several common myths about baboons during an online presentation to the U3A on Monday.

She covered baboon behaviour, ecology and conflict in the Cape Peninsula. She noted that a baboon baring its teeth is not showing aggression. Instead, if it’s doing this with a lifted tail, it is more likely showing submission.

The far more innocuous-looking raised eyebrows, is, however, a sign of aggression. Ms Mormile cautioned against trying to retrieve snatched food from baboons.

NCC has 80 employees tasked with keeping some 450 baboons in 11 troops out of the City’s suburbs.

Ms Mormile is a PhD candidate from UCT and the project manager for NCC’s baboon programme. In Rooi Els, she studied the effects of a community’s wish to share space with baboons. Their compliance in terms of baboon proofing their homes and bins and avoiding attracting baboons through veggie gardens or fruit trees was exceptional, she said. They viewed the baboons as wild animals but not as threats, and felt their presence added to the attraction and value of their area.

However, she said information collated on this approach showed why baboon management was designed to keep the animals out of urban areas: there was a tragic spike in baboon deaths from collisions with cars and dog attacks.

“A popular myth is that baboons are aggressive towards dogs. We think that because of their big teeth and those teeth being bared, but, in fact, baboons are prey animals, dogs are predators, and most baboons would rather flee than fight,” she said.

“Baboons can become aggressive when they have been cornered or had their young threatened, and humans and other animals are no different, we would respond the same way.”

She explained why managing human food sources in urban environments where there are baboons is so important, comparing human food to fast food: rich and high in taste and relatively easy to come by, compared to natural foraging.

For baboons, raiding homes and bins gives far greater reward for relatively little effort and it gives the troops more time to socialise – and make more baby baboons.

Esme Beamish, an expert in baboon behavioural ecology, said in a separate interview with the False Bay Echo, that before the current baboon management 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.

“The combination of baboon-proof 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,” she said.

During her U3A talk, Ms Mormile said people mistakenly thought baboons were territorial – and therefore could be taught to respect human territory – and that their damaging behaviour was malicious.

What was instead true, she said, was that baboons had highly flexible home ranges that overlapped with nearby troops. That was good, she said, for food opportunity and for genetic diversity. Males could change troops many times throughout their lifetimes, dispersing from their original troop at about 8 years of age, she said.

“Maliciousness is a purely human trait, whatever damage they do is not intentional but in the process of looking for easy food or play,” she said.

Ms Mormile said baboons were not an olfactory-driven species so scent marking was absolutely ineffective to them.

Another misconception is that baboons raid because of an inadequate food supply in the mountains. In truth, Ms Mormile said, baboons eat roots, grass, small mammals, eggs, birds, insects, tubers, seeds, flowers, leaves and marine invertebrates. They can survive in deserts, coastal regions, swamps and tropical forests. They don’t need human food, they are simply responding to opportunity.

Baboons are also potential seed germinators and seed dispersers, and locally they serve as the only moderate to large bodied fynbos seed dispersers.

Capetonians are well aware of the recent spat between the City of Cape Town and the SPCA over the use of paintball guns to manage baboons. Ms Mormile said the NCC staff had all been trained on their humane use, and that included only firing the paintballs – which are softer than those designed for games – at the rumps of adult animals.

The NCC also used a special colour paint so they could identify which baboons had been dealt with by their staff and which baboons had been shot at illegally.

You can call the NCC hotline at 071 588 6540 or email ubp@ncc-group.co.za