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  • Writer's pictureNHFU

Beguiling Baboons

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Other than just being a nice piece of alliteration, the word “beguiling” (interesting or attractive, but perhaps not to be trusted), does pretty much sum baboons up. Some might even compare them to marmite: you either love them, or you hate them. For me, spending time with baboons is one of the highlights of any game drive. With their human-like intelligence, deep amber eyes, and endless playfulness, there's always something entertaining going on. Others, however, see baboons as vicious, nuisance creatures who terrorise tourists and lord over the bush. So, what exactly is it about baboons that makes them so equally endearing and infuriating all at once?

We share approximately 94% of our DNA with baboons, but the similarities don’t end there. Both humans and baboons exist in particularly cooperative large group environments. As we evolved, this lifestyle gave us both the upper hand when it came to hunting, avoiding pesky predators, protecting resources, pooling information, and, according to the social intelligence hypothesis, its associated cognitive demands were a key selective pressure leading to an increase in brain size and, by extension, intelligence. Love them or hate them, there is no denying a baboon’s intelligence. For me, this became particularly apparent when baboons broke into my room, emptied out (and ate) a bunch of probiotics from a child-proof container and gently unscrewed the lightbulbs from every lamp... followed by swinging manically from the mosquito net frame, ransacking every draw and smearing faeces on the wall!

In this blog, we’ll be looking at Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) whose supreme intelligence has conquered everything from the South African coast to the Kalahari Desert, the Drakensburg mountains and the swamps of the Okavango Delta. Indeed, there is one particular Chacma that baboons have to thank for their intelligent reputation – Jack. Towards the end of the 19th century, at the Uitenhage train station on the Port Elizabeth mainline, one renowned signal box worker worked for 9-years, never making one mistake or missing a day of work, for the price of just 20c and half a bottle of beer a week. This exemplary (and official) employee was a Chacma baboon, who worked on behalf of his disabled owner before his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1890.

Chacma baboons live in ‘troops’ of anywhere between 4 and 200 individuals, including adult males, females and their offspring. With numbers of that size, it is perhaps no surprise that intense dominance hierarchies and power-struggles corrupt an otherwise peaceful existence. Female Chacmas are the stable core of the group: they remain within their natal troops and forge ‘kinships’ with their fellow female relatives that can span generations. Dominance hierarchy runs down these ‘matrilinies’ from infancy until death, controlling access to mates, food, grooming and, best of all, reduced harassment. Daughters sit just below their mothers in the hierarchy, but interestingly, a baboon's youngest daughter will rank above their elder sister.

Males, on the other hand, are the trouble makers. Once a male Chacma hits about 4-years old, he has a sudden growth spurt and develops sharp canines, meaning one thing: it’s time to leave home. He becomes a nomad, moving between troops and usurping the dominant males where he can. These intense displays of fighting and aggression are all done in the name of love, and securing himself offspring of his own. His new crown could, however, topple at any moment, with reigning kings typically only lasting between 6 – 12 months before being kicked out by younger immigrants. It is as a result of this instability that infanticide is a sad fact of life for Chacma baboons, with only a quarter of all babies surviving their first year. Newly dominant males will kill off infants sired by their predecessor in order to encourage their mates back into oestrus and even induce miscarriage through harassment of pregnant females. This might sound unnecessarily brutal, but this cruel fact of nature has the hidden benefit of preserving the diversity of the troop’s gene pool, ultimately increasing survival in the long run.

Thankfully, these wily females have some tricks up their sleeves. They make it their mission to form strong ‘friendships’ with unrelated males (preferably those who are dominant or those who she has a sneaky suspicion might become so soon), that last for the entirety of her sexually receptive lifetime. When it is time to mate, she solicits several partners by flashing her white eyebrows and presenting her swollen backside to her chosen partner, with preference given to her ‘friends’. While in heat, she can mate up to 100 times, confusing males on the question of paternity, and soliciting protection for her offspring. During shifts in male hierarchy, she might be half the size of her aggressor, but she can rely on her confused friends to support her. A study that lasted over 14-years in the Okavango Delta, showed that lactating females in friendships exhibited a smaller rise in stress hormones during these times than those without.

These friends are worth fighting for and while they do, a more peaceful means to gain and maintain friendship is through grooming. This is a major activity in any baboon’s calendar, facilitating removing parasites and debris from fur and, best of all, a natural high from the subsequent endorphin rush. It's also been shown to be a type of grief-therapy used in times of heartbreak. The same 14-year study showed that bereaved female baboons ‘reached out’ to their female companions for comfort, increasing their grooming rate and broadening their circle of grooming partners, with stress hormones dropping significantly just after grooming, making this the first direct evidence that Chacma baboons mourn for the dead.

As in any successful relationship, communication is key. Enhanced by their particularly expressive faces, baboons use a complex array of different body stances, facial expressions, touch, and around 30-different vocalisations to communicate with one another. Intense staring, eyebrow raising, shaking vegetation, and displays of their sharp, pointy canines are all acts of aggression, while rapid glances in the opposite direction or presenting one’s rump can be an effective, if somewhat surprising, tool to diffuse tension. Meanwhile, touching noses, smacking lips, and soft grunts are all perceived as affectionate signs between friends. False alarms are even known to be used. Observations have recorded infant baboons tricking their mother's to go into protective mode by pretending another female is attacking them, with the real purpose of wanting the supposed aggressor's snack.

These trickster infants are born with a black fuzzy coat, bright pink facial skin, and overly prominent ears. As with humans, they are the subject of the great deal of fuss and attention from their curious peers, so much so that kidnapping is not uncommon. First clinging to their mother's chest, they later ride piggy-back style on her back, before being weaned at approximately six-months old. While females take on the burden of childcare, her 'friends' act as something of a ‘godfather’ to these infants (presumably because they think that they are the fathers). They regularly groom, play, baby-sit and protect them, and have even been observed to take on the role of a foster parent after their mother’s death. This might sound surprising, but adoption isn't that uncommon in baboon societies, with one study showing that 11 out of 12 orphans were adopted by another member of the troop (with the one that wasn't adopted able to survive independently).

The entire troop have favourite spots to lay their head, high in the safety of the canopy, known as 'roosts'. Come morning, it’s time to search for food and water. Morning dispersal is initiated by a single individual: if they can recruit at least 5 followers, the rest of the troop will follow. If not, they must wait. During foraging, the alpha male leads the troop, taking the riskiest position at the front, with the vulnerable infants in the middle. Baboon's are known as 'eclectic omnivores' and eat pretty much everything from scorpions to terrapins, insects to small antelopes, shellfish and even young farm animals. They can survive for long periods of time on a low-quality diet, and any excess goodies can be stored in their cheek pouches, which are the same size as their stomach.

One of the keys to the baboon's success is its adaptability, but this holds benefits for others too. As baboons dig for food, they aerate the soil and disperse the seeds of the plants they feed on. Their abundance also makes them a reliable part of the local food chain. In some areas, baboons make up as much as 20% of leopard diets, and in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools, they make up 44% of all wild dog kills! Baboons don't go without a fight, however. At the sight of a predator, the posted sentinels give a characteristic 'wahoo' bark, and the strongest males heading to the frontline. Armed with enormous, pointy canines and the ability to run at speeds of 30 miles per hour, it's not uncommon to hear of baboon troops tearing their opponents to shreds.

Chacma baboons aren’t exactly threatened (not least because we keep wiping out their predators), but they are being increasingly forced into closer contact with humans. Their intelligence is at once their most attractive, and most problematic, quality: baboon's can flourish in human-environments, preying on livestock, raiding crop plantations, harassing tourists, and breaking into cars and houses in search of goodies. When we try to take this easily-available, calorie-rich food source away from them, they understandably become aggressive. Non-lethal deterrents are quickly figured out by our ever-intelligent relatives, meaning that 'problem baboons' are hunted, poisoned, or trapped in response. If that weren't enough, baboons are also captured for bushmeat, the pet industry, traditional medicines, and research laboratories around the world.

In the Cape Point, things got so bad that the local population of baboons faced what seemed to be a certain extinction. Suburban menaces broke into houses, residents were mugged, baboons were shot indiscriminately, and a man was even pushed to his death. Today, however, we can look to this success story for inspiration since, as human populations continue to expand, we're only going to get this problem more. Alongside traditional deterrent measures, the most important changes made were to make resident's homes less attractive using education and outreach programmes. Bins were fitted with locks, food wasn't left out, and tourists were told: DO NOT FEED THE BABOONS. Today, any individuals who continued to thwart the rules are fitted with radio collars and given 'rap' sheets to track their movements and transgressions. Once a full range of deterrents fails, they are euthanised. It might sound harsh, but it's more forgiving than shooting the whole troop.

Today, the baboons at Cape Point are increasing, and they stay out of settled areas more than 95% of the time. The 14-year study from the Delta mentioned in this blog also put this theory to the test: with strict rules about food and waste, despite living in their proximity, they didn't have any problems with baboon break-ins. Without human interference and habituation, baboons can only be appreciated for their uncanny intelligence and social lifestyle. It's easy to judge them, but I hope that this blog has persuaded you to give them another chance at winning over your affection. As we take over more of their turf, they're going to need all the help they can get.


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