Baboon season

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Urban development in the Garden Route is forcing baboons to forage for food in local homes as their habitat dwindles, but residents and authorities are banding together to find a holistic solution to increased clashes between primate and man.

 WORDS Francini van Staden

Locals call it baboon season – the time from May to October when forest food sources are limited and baboons move into residential areas in search of sustenance.

Knysna Baboon Action Group (KBAG) and Knysna Baboon Management Forum chairman Richard Thorpe says environmental consciousness goes out the window when foraging baboons trash your home. “In addition to excrement, ruined food and serious damage to property, the fear of cornering a baboon by accident is always in the back of your mind. The thought of those vicious fangs in the neck of a beloved pet, or worse a child, is unbearable.”

KBAG was formed to find a solution to significantly increasing problems with baboons venturing into local suburbs. “Long-time residents will tell you that baboon raids have never been this prevalent and that the animals are getting cheekier and seem smarter,” says Richard.

Primatologist Dr Paula Pebsworth, who studied baboons in the Western Cape, says the animals were forced to adapt repeatedly to their ever-changing environment. As their natural habitat dwindled due to urban and agricultural development, the primates learned to eat unnatural food resources, one example being alien vegetation. Now that alien vegetation is being eradicated, the animals have found a constant and appealing source of food in residential areas and rural communities.

Paula says baboons are opportunistic, not malicious. “Like humans, if they see a convenient source of food, they will take it. With easy access to calorie-dense human food, the animals no longer have to forage in the forest for eight hours a day, often times with a rather meagre pay-off. But shorter foraging periods in residential and farming areas leave the baboons with time on their hands, increasing the likelihood that they will damage property and place them in harm’s way of people and domestic dogs.

CapeNature conservation services manager Barend le Roux says the problem extends to almost all forest-edged properties in the Garden Route, particularly Knysna, George and Nature’s Valley.

“Interestingly, human-baboon conflict is less pronounced in informal settlement areas. This is most likely due to reduced access to food and dogs that are not confined to properties that will chase the baboons. With such hindrances, the raids will probably be less worthwhile and of a higher risk for baboons.”

Managing baboon mischief
Environmentalists, researchers and conservation agencies say human-baboon conflict can be largely avoided if the matter is addressed holistically. This requires a mind shift, affecting urban planning, waste removal, crop planting and pets. “While we may think that baboons are invading our space, we have in fact created additional habitat rich in rewards that they are now utilising – with the result that we have to work on a plan to coexist amicably,” says Barend.

Although frustrated residents often demand a problem baboon be killed, law protects the animals. CapeNature considers the issuing of permits for the euthanising of repeat offenders as a last resort. Management options that are recommended include catching, tagging and release within the home range, using paintball guns to deter baboons and baboon monitors.

In Nature’s Valley residents worked with CapeNature to develop a baboon management plan that includes awareness campaigns, waste management by all households, raid reports and data collection on baboon behaviour. While the plan is easy to manage out of season when only 60 permanent residents live in the village, more than 4 000 holidaymakers during major holidays have highlighted the need for awareness campaigns during that time.

In Knysna the problem is even more complex. “Not only is the town larger, wildlife corridors were not considered when developments were approved and as a result the baboons have been forced into a gap between several new housing estates, cutting them off from their natural habitat. In future, if we intend to continue development, wildlife corridors should be incorporated into the urban planning process,” says Richard.

CapeNature, SANParks, KBAG, the Knysna Municipality and other roleplayers have banded together to form the Knysna Baboon Management Forum to find a sustainable solution to the baboon problem. Richard says the greatest defence against baboons is denying them access to human food. To this end, the municipality will soon be providing households in baboon-prone areas with wheelie bins and, if required, a bylaw will be pursued that all households in the affected areas use lockable waste bins. “It sounds obvious but it is remarkably difficult to get people to do the simplest things. If all the residents in a street lock their waste away and just one leaves theirs accessible, the baboons will return and affect the entire neighbourhood,” says Richard.

After realising baboons are more active on municipal waste collection days, the municipality now services problem areas first, denying the baboons the opportunity to rummage before the rubbish is collected.

Some residents of Pezula Private Estate in Knysna were so intimidated by wild baboons they considered selling up. “It was a major crisis as frequent break-ins became unbearable to homeowners,” says Pezula operational manager Leonard McLean. Since implementing a baboon management plan, the estate has been free of baboon incidences for two years. “Nine staff members patrol the estate daily and respond immediately if baboons move too close to homes. They persistently move the baboons off onto the cliffs, down to the sea or back into the natural forest areas.

“The baboons have learnt to see our wildlife monitors as alpha males in charge of moving the troop and monitors are careful to shift them off naturally, without splitting them up. The baboons are adapting and are learning that it is more convenient to stay in their natural area – they are very responsive to our management and it has changed our homeowners’ perceptions as well.”

Pezula also taught homeowners to be more baboon-conscious and to safeguard their homes. “For instance, we have learnt that baboons cannot grasp the concept of a turning handle, so now we encourage the use of certain latches to prevent baboons from accessing homes,” says Leonard.

Educating holidaymakers is also essential to any baboon management plan’s long-term success as the influx of seasonal visitors worsens the raiding problem. Visitors may be unaware of the need to close up homes and clamp down waste, or the baboons are considered fascinating and are fed to attract them.

“We need to recognise that baboon incidences are an unintended consequence of human behaviour that will continue as long as humans and baboons compete for habitat. No single management measure can be expected to resolve the matter, but a holistic approach in which all the affected people make a conscious effort to minimise the causes has a much better chance to ultimately succeed,” says Paula.

Debunking the myths
Myth: Eliminate the alpha male to resolve human/baboon conflict
Truth: The alpha male controls the size of the troop. Remove him and the troop will expand as control is lost.

Myth: Returning a “trouble-making” rogue male to his natal troop will keep him out of houses
Truth: Males leave their natal troop to prevent inbreeding. If he is allowed to find a new troop he will move on. Without this protection, he will continue to search for easy food.

Myth: Kill a baboon and hang it on a stake to repel the troop
Truth: If food is still available, a dead baboon will not stop the troop from foraging.

Myth: Baboons are more afraid of men than women
Truth: Baboons react to an individual’s behaviour. They recognise fear and could try to take advantage of this. Baboons can snatch food from young children as they view them as a lesser threat.

Myth: When encountering dogs, baboons will attack
Baboons are only known to attack dogs if threatened or attacked by the dog first. Baboons can seriously injure dogs.