Cape Town’s baboon programme: Successful coexistence between wildlife and urban communities

21 July 2021 | Story Justin O’Riain. Photo Bateleur Publishing – Mark Skinner/Gallo Images. Read time 7 min.
Prof Justin O’Riain writes that today, the Cape Penninsula baboon population needs contraceptives to curb their burgeoning numbers.
Prof Justin O’Riain writes that today, the Cape Penninsula baboon population needs contraceptives to curb their burgeoning numbers.

Baboons spending more time in their natural habitats and suffering fewer human-caused injuries and deaths is cause for celebration, writes Professor Justin O’Riain, the director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Cape Town’s urban baboon programme has resulted in more baboons spending more time in natural habitats and suffering fewer human-caused injuries and deaths. Against the sombre backdrop of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, this is cause for celebration.

Twenty years ago, the Cape Peninsula baboon population was heading for extinction. Ten years ago, numbers were on the rise, but the leading cause of death was trauma suffered in an urban area. Today, baboons need contraceptives to curb their burgeoning numbers and most die of natural causes.

However, a reader of Daily Maverick would be forgiven for thinking that not only are the Peninsula baboons back on the extinction cliff, but the heartless authorities are right behind them, shoving.  

This perception has been crafted on select social media platforms and then further curated in mainstream media, which is sympathetic to the “David vs Goliath” parallel of caring citizens standing up to the heartless governance machine.

The problem, of course, is that the facts do not support the narrative that the authorities are willingly pushing the population to extinction while being cruel and uncaring in the process.

There are more baboons, spending more time in natural habitats and suffering fewer human-caused injuries and deaths which are associated with the worst kinds of suffering and cruelty. Against the sombre backdrop of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, this is cause for celebration.

These successes are not by chance, but by careful collective design that has involved hundreds of people in countless workshops and meetings since 1998. Welfare organisations, NGOs, scientists, concerned citizens, volunteers and councillors have, together with civic, provincial and national operational managers, devised a successful, largely non-lethal programme to keep baboons out of dangerous urban areas.

By contrast, throughout most of Europe, wild boars – a mammalian proxy for baboons, being adaptable, social and no less sentient – are invariably shot on the urban edge by residents with hunting licences, and summarily eaten.

International scientific experts who have visited Cape Town and understand the objectives of the programme consider it to be wholly consistent with best practices for ensuring coexistence between wildlife and communities on an urban edge.

How do readers reconcile these facts with the constant suggestions that the authorities are inept in their management plans, cruel in their methods and guilty of driving the population to extinction? 

What of international celebrity conservationists like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall who have variously lent both vague and more explicit support (respectively) for animal rights groups’ claims of baboons being treated inhumanely and the need to “embrace not chase” our wild neighbours in the Anthropocene?

What would Attenborough say to more and healthier baboons in and around one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities? How could Goodall possibly argue for a reversion to the status quo a decade ago, when Peninsula baboons spent more time in urban areas and paid for that privilege with greater loss of life and limb?

To be fair to both, neither are apprised of the facts because the authorities never thought of writing to tell them the good news. To be critical of both, they should have asked the authorities for the facts or approached independent experts after being lobbied with emotive letters and before writing platitudes dramatically divorced from the realities on the ground.

What the above reveals is that the current anti-authority stance in Cape Town is less about the (f)actual conservation status and welfare of the baboons on the Peninsula, and more about the fundamental differences that exist in any society on how people view their relationships with wildlife and each other.

If we rewind to 2008, before the current programme was extended to all troops and was properly resourced, civic halls were packed with irate citizens demanding that the authorities get the baboons out of town by either culling the lot or packing them into a truck destined for the Boland.

The authorities rejected both suggestions and opted for a coexistence model that relied mostly on non-lethal methods to keep most baboons out of urban areas for most of the time. Their success means that such incendiary public meetings have largely been extinguished.

Yet the methods used to achieve this success have become the focus of equally vociferous groups who have forsaken town halls for social media chat rooms, demanding an end to the programme and attempting to “cancel” all who contribute to it.

Such is the plight of the managers appointed to fix the problems we all created when natural land was transformed to support our modern lifestyle. None of us are exempt in creating the problems, but only a few are tasked with being responsible for the solutions.

The problem is that there is no one right or simple solution to fixing a complex ecological system that we broke when we killed all the natural predators and usurped the more productive low-lying land for our houses, schools and shops.

 

Cape Town has shown that we can live next door to wildlife, including the agile and adaptable baboon, and that baboon numbers, welfare and health can improve while our human population continues to grow and our footprint expands.

How does one simulate natural predators and the profound influence they have on the abundance and behaviour of prey species like baboons? How does one simulate dispersal and emigration in a population isolated and fragmented by our urban sprawl?

Through trial and error with the best available science and expert opinion, and with constant education of the public on the how and why, these actions are essential to conserve a healthy population of baboons. All this, while local, provincial and national government seek to address more pressing problems of crime, grime and fiscal decline.

It is, of course, easy to simply take the moral high ground by saying “baboons were here first so we must share our space with them” or “people should be punished, not baboons”. However, in the absence of practical and sustainable means for achieving these ideals, they remain as virtual as the Facebook pages in which they are written.

When baboons visit urban areas, they suffer all manner of injury and death, with cars and dogs among the leading causes. You cannot punish people for either driving or having dogs, and so if you genuinely care for baboons, then you can only argue for them to be kept in protected areas where such threats are limited.

Furthermore, baboons are generalist, opportunistic omnivores with a penchant for low-lying land. Compared with the indigenous, less digestible vegetation in the mountains, they consider the average well-watered suburban garden in the valley to be a lush bonanza. So, even perfect baboon-proofing of all other food sources will see baboons attracted to private properties.

When a visit to snack on a protea flower coincides with a children’s outdoor party and the birthday cake is spirited away amidst screams and wahoos, then the family is justified in demanding that the authorities – to whom their rates are paid – devise methods that prevent a repeat performance.

This they have done, and the result after 10 years was a rare four-way win: less damage to property and pets, with more and healthier baboons experiencing fewer welfare harms and contributing more to the natural ecology of the Peninsula fynbos.

This does require deterring baboons from urban areas with tools that are both legal and humane, for if they were not, then users would have long since been charged with violating the Animal Protection Act. It may also mean the death of baboons that do not respond to these tools and, in doing so, present a risk to themselves, pets, people, property and other baboons.

Animal rights groups may apply to place such animals in a sanctuary or a rehabilitation centre, provided they satisfy the relevant CapeNature regulations that pertain to such facilities.

The general absence of such facilities in the Western Cape, despite repeated attempts to raise funding for such ventures and/or support those in existence, suggests that the vocal denouncing of lethal management on social media is not matched by a financial commitment to provide an alternative option.

Furthermore, criticism of the current approaches – while failing to acknowledge the successes and, worse still, failing to provide realistic alternatives that are practical, commensurate with the law and work to the betterment of both ratepayers and baboons – serves only to hinder meaningful dialogue and progress.

There are many improvements to be made to the urban baboon programme, including a transition to baboon-proof fencing in conflict hotspots and an associated reduction in the use of paintball markers, improved education and improved waste management.

However, efforts to get the authorities to the discussion table to look forward are constantly thwarted by their having to spend most of their time engaged in a rearguard defence of their much-maligned programme, and countering the false, alarmist claims of cruel methods, secret killings and the imminent demise of the population.

Understanding this threat, Prof Shirley Strum, an internationally recognised expert in baboon behaviour and conservation who, having visited the Peninsula and met with the role players, advised the following:

“I strongly urge the activists to stop this senseless campaign. Instead, they should use that energy to help support the reasonable efforts that are being proposed. If they don’t, they will have more baboon deaths on their conscience. The epitaph of these baboons will read: ‘Met an untimely end because activists could not face reality’.”

It is further important to recognise that anti-baboon sentiment is rife in South Africa and even pervasive among national and private custodians of our protected areas. In many provinces, farmers can kill as many baboons as they wish to protect their property and livelihoods, while in the Western Cape, farmers can kill one per day every day of the year in order to produce the apples and wines we consume.

It is against this backdrop, and the absence of viable baboon populations adjacent to any of the other major metropoles despite their historical presence in all of them, that Cape Town’s baboons and their ongoing management programme needs to be considered.

Cape Town has shown that we can live next door to wildlife, including the agile and adaptable baboon, and that baboon numbers, welfare and health can improve while our human population continues to grow and our footprint expands.

If these successes are not acknowledged and, yes, even celebrated, then other metros both in South Africa and elsewhere in the world will have no incentive to invest the millions of ratepayers’ rands it takes to run a successful non-lethal programme that allows wildlife and people to coexist as good neighbours. 

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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