Although conflict between humans and wildlife on the urban edge is a global phenomenon, baboons are undoubtedly one of the most challenging animals to share space with. 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. It’s in this context that iCWild’s long history of baboon research began.
In the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, the problems for baboons began in earnest when people started sedentary living and usurped all the productive low lying lands for growing crops and building houses. Baboons were left with the mountains where exposure to the elements is high, and plant productivity is low. Although baboons like high-lying areas for sleeping, they prefer to forage at lower altitudes where the deeper soils sustain more and higher-quality food.
Fifteen years ago there was a real lack of data on basic issues such as how many baboons lived in the Cape Peninsula, what habitat they preferred, and whether there was enough food and space for them. In the absence of data the many divergent opinions on these topics carried equal weight. Management meetings were consequently dogged by heated arguments that ranged from claims that Cape Peninsula baboons were going extinct to demands that they should all be captured and shipped off to the other side of the Cape Flats. This was iCWild’s (which subsumed the University of Cape Town’s Baboon Research Unit) starting point for realising that conflict between people over how to manage wildlife was often greater than that between communities and wildlife.
As our research results came in – from 15 postgraduate students, including five PhDs – so some of the common myths were dispelled. Numbers were increasing, there was more than enough space for baboons who shunned fynbos for alien vegetation (including pines, grapes and acacias) where this was available. We learnt that Cape Peninsula baboons are neither genetically nor behaviourally unique, and that long exposure to humans had resulted in them acquiring both human parasites and viruses.
Together these findings closed the door on those advocating moving the baboons off the Cape Peninsula. Both the baboons and people elsewhere in the country would pay an unacceptably high cost. The authorities thus accepted they were now dealing with a closed population which, with no natural predators and a lot of food attractants on both farms and in the suburbs, would require constant management.
Over the years, funding for management increased and management subsequently improved. Now in 2019, baboons spend less time in urban areas, and there are fewer injuries and deaths attributed to residents seeking retribution for raids. In fact, recent research led by Swansea University revealed that, although raiding and urban foraging were still occurring, the current service provider (Human Wildlife Solutions) was succeeding in keeping male baboons out of urban areas for >98% of the time. This suggests that the City of Cape Town’s investment is improving both the welfare and the conservation status of baboons, and in so doing is improving the wellbeing and property prices of residents living on the urban edge.
There is still an enormous amount of work to be done, including improved legislation to get serial offenders to finally improve their management of residential properties and waste areas. More education is also essential, along with the auditing and improvement of all properties that attract baboons into urban areas.
We have several ongoing projects in the Cape Peninsula:
The first project is Esme Beamish’s PhD work which explores the effectiveness of the Cape Peninsula’s different management and conservation strategies by reviewing long-term demographic data relating to population growth, mortalities and injuries.
Our second project focuses on determining whether stable isotope ratios (chemical tracers found in hair and other body tissues) reliably indicate how much human food a baboon has eaten. If the results are clear-cut, this tool could be used to confirm identities of habitual raiders or help determine from which troops lone-ranging baboons (typically males) originate.
The final two projects are run by Swansea-University of Cape Town co-badged PhD candidates Anna Bracken and Charlotte Christensen, investigating the flexibility of baboons in response to human-changed environments, and baboon behavioural endocrinology, respectively. These PhD projects are part of an innovative partnership between iCWild and the Department of Biosciences at Swansea University in the United Kingdom. iCWild international collaborators Dr Andrew King and Dr Ines Fürtbauer (Swansea) coordinate the PhD programme with iCWild Director, Prof Justin O’Riain.