Never feed Baboons!

The Southern Cape Peninsula has a rich heritage of fauna and flora along the scenic route to Cape Point, but watch out, particularly between the stretch from Millers Point to Smitswinkel Bay, for a troop of engaging baboons.

Many motorists stop and are captivated by their antics.  Perhaps it is that in them, we imagine our own primate past that leads some people to want to approach the animals up close?  For it is a common misperception that the animals are tame.

In the lead up to the 2010 World Cup and since then with the influx of overseas visitors several articles have appeared in the international press warning of incidents of “baboon-jackings” but little mention is ever made of the irresponsible actions on the part of people.

Along the roadside on this very route are large warning signs that baboons should be respected as wild animals.  Car doors must be locked, windows closed and in bold capital letters it states “DO NOT FEED”.  It’s a sad fact that many people don’t observe these warnings and worse, commit the offence of feeding the animals.   Few realize how cruel a gesture this really is, or that their actions may unwittingly result in a death sentence for the animals.

Highly adaptable, as they learn to associate people and cars with food, they become conditioned not only to expect to be given food but increasingly aggressive.  And not everyone understands the workings of a troop’s dominance hierarchy.

A strict code of conduct applies within the troop, particularly when it comes to food.  No matter what, the alpha male gets first pick, and if hungry can and will eat the entire pickings without so much as leaving a crumb for the subordinates of the realm.  The rule applies down the pecking order: subordinates do not eat in front of a higher ranking member, unless food is handed over.  Along come the bungling humans with their good intentions and who, without realizing the detrimental effects, infringe the etiquette.

Here’s an example – visitors in a Mercedes stop to watch the troop.  As they drive off what looks like an apple core and chicken bones are tossed from the car to a subordinate member of the troop.  A trifling act, just an apple core, a few chewed chicken bones?   What isn’t appreciated is the reaction caused.   The alpha male sitting close by, reacts in complete agitation.  Cardinal rule broken: not paying attention to importance of rank.  The next car to slow down doesn’t even come to a stop before he jumps onto it demanding attention; trying the door handles, jumping up at the windows begging for food.  Quite often he will get onto the bonnet of a car and refuse to budge.  He reminds the occupants of the car which he regards as subordinate, that here he is Boss.  With frequent displays of ‘dominance yawning’ he will show off his impressive canines.  Leave a window open or a car door unlocked and he will get in.

Take this Sequence of photographs:

The Alpha male commandeers a large bag of muesli rusks which someone has thrown out to him.

Isn’t this an engaging family grouping and grooming session?  No this is a food queue lined up in pecking order.  Closest to the alpha male is the senior ranking female with her week old male infant and attendant ‘ baby minder’. Sitting on the crash barrier is the principal scout and look-out.  The queue continues with the males and females in strict order patiently waiting for the cue which the alpha male will give once he has had his fill.  He takes his time, painstakingly picking out all the raisins.

Meanwhile along come several vehicles packed with an assortment of well-intentioned people seeking close-up ‘photo- ops’.    They blunder into the feeding queue, some even taking up places along the crash barrier completely oblivious to the crucial action taking place for the baboons i.e. being able to sight the alpha male’s all important cue, the critical moment: the ready, steady, GO moment of getting a share of the leftover spoils.

People who try to ‘pet’ and touch baboons do so without respect for a wild animal’s valid reaction should it react negatively.   It’s extraordinary, this lack of common sense.  Intrude into an alpha male’s space and he may interpret the action as a challenge or even a threat and react accordingly.

Often baboons grab bags which don’t even contain food, but valuables such as passports, travelers’ cheques or wads of $100 bills.  Usually the distraught owner gives chase and the baboon which interprets this as a threat will retaliate.  It is best to have patience and to wait until the animal loses interest and abandons the bag.

Monitors whose job is to manage the baboons often have far more of a challenge managing people.  So perhaps if you’re planning an outing along the scenic route to Cape Point and you are lucky to come across a troop of these fascinating creatures, make it an enjoyable experience – keep a good distance, stay in your car, keep the doors locked and windows closed!

Read more about the Chacma Baboons of the Cape here.

Special thanks to Liz Hardman for the images and information provided in this article. Visit her exhibition called WILD WITHIN which is on at the Casa Labia Cultural Centre in Muizenberg from 26 July – 4 September 2011. This photo essay was recorded over a tow year period showing episodes in a baboons life. The photographer hopes to engender an appreciation of these wild creatures as an integral part of our natural heritage.

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