Baboons for me have always been the animals that taught Tarzan to swing heroically while yodelling, through the dense jungles of Africa. As I’m ignorant about primates, I could be mistaken, and it could’ve been Monkeys, Gorillas or Apes who were Tarzan’s tutors. Baboons, according to me, are dangerous, just sit in trees and steal food from tourists. But that was my uninformed opinion before I went on a guided walk with Chacma Baboons in the Southern Cape Peninsula
Chacma baboons are indigenous to South Africa and at one time they roamed freely in areas like Clifton and Camps Bay in Cape Town. Due to rapid urbanisation of the Cape Peninsula the baboons have been pushed further south with the highest concentration of them now living in the Tokai, Kommetjie, De Gama Park, and Scarborough areas.
As the residential areas grew baboons realised that human food was easily accessible and they started rummaging through the waste bins and at times broke into houses to raid the larder. Conflict between Baboons and residents reached such catastrophic proportions that in 1998 it was predicted that if nothing was done, the baboons would soon become extinct.
“Baboon Matters”- started by Jenni Trethowan- has been an integral part of finding a solution to save theses endangered animals. It was decided that Baboon Matters would be paid a management fee to employ monitors to keep a watch on the movement of the baboons and steer them clear of the residential areas. Guided tours, where tourists can walk with the baboons while learning about these misunderstood animals- was also initiated. Says Jenni, “When I first came up with the idea of guided walks, people thought I was nuts. But now that the benefits are starting to manifest opinion is changing.”
Realising that ignorance isn’t bliss, I changed my mind from; spending an afternoon lazing on the beach and visiting the Waterfront; to taking a hike while learning more about our branch swinging ,distant relatives
40 minutes from Cape Town and a scenic drive later I arrived at the offices of Baboon matters. After a brief introduction, Chris our guide began with an orientation talk. One of the non – negotiable points was that absolutely no food was allowed on the walk.
We drove out to the location where one of the troops was believed to be. After a short walk into the hills we met up with one of the monitors.
The 28 monitors who have been employed from the local community of Masiphumelele work in teams of three to four. They observe the troops and their movements and take the necessary steps in case the baboons get too close to the residential areas. They’re also there to keep an eye on the guides and tourists. Alarmingly I noticed that the monitors have no form of weapons for protection.
“We have a special bond with the troops and they trust us implicitly,” says Mzukisi Nkewu, who has recently been promoted to the position of field manager. “To direct them we only have to clap our hands and whistle, and they’ll move to wherever we want them to. He tells of a story when a film crew was shooting a commercial in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. The crew went to the location without any baboon monitors. A short while later Baboon Matters received a phone call from the stressed production manager saying that the crew were all huddled in a caravan while a number of “vicious” baboons were eating all the food from the tables. Four baboon monitors rushed to the scene. The baboons recognised them immediately, and with sandwiches, fruit and biscuits in hand made for the bushes. The monitors, clapping their hands and whistling, steered the baboons further away.
We walked about 700 metres in to the low lying hills when suddenly we heard the barking of a baboon. A short distance in front of us the Alpha male of the troop- George- reared his head from behind a rock. After giving us the once over, he seemed to nod, and the rest of the troop, of about 15 baboons, followed him down to a small clearing in the shade of a tree. The older ones joined him, lay down and dozed while the younger more energetic ones, jumped from rock to rock, climbed up the nearby trees and play fought with each other.
We sat down in the late afternoon sun and watched the troop playing, no further than 10 metres from us. All the while we sat there Chris fed us with information and stories about the baboons.
“Baboons will only attack if they’re threatened. The only time they will approach us, is when they can smell that we have food on us. Still then they won’t try to bite us, but rather they’ll only try to push us over so that they can get to the food.” Says Chris
After two hours of watching, listening and learning we made our way back to the car.
The walk is short, not too steep, and the rugged nature striking. All that’s needed is a hat and some sunscreen.
The cost for this tour is money well spent. It helps to keep Baboon Matters and their dream- of reducing the conflict between humans and baboons- alive. The residents are happier, and both tourists and the people of Masiphumelele are benefitting from this educational adventure.
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