Baboon data in focus

Professor Justin ORiain is a behavioural ecologist with a special interest in understanding and mitigating conservation conflicts in southern Africa.

The number of baboons killed by people in response to them raiding has fallen in the last decade, says a behavioural ecologist.

Professor Justin O’Riain told the Friends of Tokai annual general meeting last week the City was spending more than R12 million a year – or about R25 000 per baboon – to prevent conflict between baboons and humans on the Cape Peninsula.

Baboon numbers had risen 36% since they had first been counted in 1998, said Professor O’Riain, the director of the newly formed Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at UCT.

His talk, “Fences fire and fynbos: peninsula baboons between a rock and a hard place”, summarised the findings of more than 15 years of research involving 15 postgraduate students including five PhDs.

Professor O’Riain said conflict between humans and wildlife on the urban edge was a global phenomenon “with foxes, raccoons, boars, bears and possums all at odds with people over resources”.

But the baboon was “undoubtedly the most challenging species to share space with”, he said.

“They are strong, agile and dexterous which allows them to scale an apartment block and unzip a bag with equal panache. They’re also social, and so can learn from each other as they search for new food sources in an ever-changing world.”

He said baboons liked high-lying areas for sleeping but preferred to forage at lower altitudes where the deeper soils sustained more food.

Professor O’Riain said there had been a lack of data on baboons 15 years ago.” Because of this every opinion carried equal weight and there were many divergent opinions. Management meetings were consequently dogged by heated arguments that ranged from claims that peninsula baboons were going extinct to demands that they should all be captured and shipped off to the Boland.”

As research results came in some of the myths were dispelled.

“Numbers were increasing, there was plenty of space and baboons shunned fynbos for alien vegetation including pines, grapes and acacias.

“We also learnt that peninsula baboons are neither genetically nor behaviourally unique and that long exposure to humans had resulted in them acquiring both human parasites and viruses.”

Those findings had closed the door on those advocating moving the baboons and the authorities had accepted that they were now dealing with a closed population.

With no natural predators and many food attractants on farms and in suburbs baboons would require constant management.

Professor O’Riain said funding for management had increased, attracting professional companies with training in wildlife management .

“So began a new era in managing baboons and encouragingly all the key performance areas improved dramatically. Baboons spent less time in urban areas and so there were fewer injuries and deaths attributed to residents seeking retribution for raids.”

But what to do with baboons that could not be deterred using non-lethal methods of electric fences and field rangers armed with paintball guns?

“Following input from international primate experts and wildlife managers, the decision was taken to include a lethal component to management for baboons that do not respond to non-lethal methods. This was supported by the NSPCA who had witnessed incidents of poisoning, shooting, vehicle collisions, fights with dogs and blunt trauma injuries,” he said.

Meanwhile, in 2013, then chairman of Zwaanswyk Association of Property Owners, Nick Harris, had proposed raising funds for a
R1.2 million fence to provide a barrier between Table Mountain National Park and the residential area.

Six months after installation it had worked.

The Simon’s Town community had also achieved success when pioneering noise aversion to keep the baboons out of town.

Alex Rowe had brought in bear bangers from America. They had proven successful in deterring baboons and were now used in many different parts of the province and country.

Professor O’Riain suggests building a fence along Orpen Road so that baboons can forage in lower Tokai. He has also done a costing to build a fence across the southern peninsula, from Fish Hoek and Kommetjie.

He said 12 baboons had died in the 2015 veldfire, all female and young, because they had made the mistake of escaping up their sleeping site of tall pines. He said people had been worried at the time that there would insufficient food for the baboons, but the pine trees had released their winged seeds providing a carpet of nutrient-dense food.

Scientists who had done tests on baboons faeces had found the creature’s stress levels were lower after the fire. They don’t know why.