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Ape town: living with baboons in Cape Town

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Neither human nor baboon can manage the living-together-but-apart that would be required for them to share the city

Municipal rates in Cape Town help pay for the city’s 24-hour Baboon Hotline encouraging residents to report raiding baboons. The number is saved on my phone but, the times I might have used it, I was too busy coping with the immediate havoc in front of me to log a call. I suspect it is like that for most people in the city and I am fairly certain that the apes – the nearest mammalian relatives in town – are not, at least yet, dialling in. 

Baboons have been living in the mountainous Cape Peninsula of South Africa for far longer than the area has been a human habitat. The long and high mountain ridge that defines and edges the present city used to be a good place for them. Native fynbos fed the baboons while the exposed sandstone rockery of beach cliffs and mountain crags gave them safe places to sleep and to breed. Leopards were their main predators. Early European colonists saw off the big cats, but the baboons stayed.

Of the five baboon species in Africa, the chacma is the largest; adults weigh up to 40 kilograms

Credit:Yor Balini / Alamy

In the last one hundred years, as more and more people have made for the urban spread (from elsewhere in Southern Africa, from Asia, from Europe), it has become harder for baboons to make their home. The rocks and some of the edible vegetation remain, but with so many people and so much ofour (often edible) stuff, the Cape has become uncertain territory: more appealing in some ways, easier eating, but more dangerous too, with many new threats and foes outstripping their adaptive ingenuity. Baboons get killed by cars, by pet dogs and, so it seems, by human pathogens picked up from our waste. They learn at speed, but today Cape Town is witness to the anthropocene moving faster (along its own humanly determined course) than any ape evolution could possibly match. Relations between people and monkeys have devolved to what feels like an interspecies civil war – an apt description of our botched tenancy of the wider planet, but also bad news for both sides. 

In 2019, my first year spent largely in Cape Town, there were 449 chacma baboons living in 11 ‘managed troops’ on the city’s southern peninsula. At home in Scarborough, one of the suburbs of that peninsula, I saw baboons most days. They were around. Generally, and close. Most meetings were harmless; we passed each other by, but twice we bumped more heavily, even dangerously, into one another. With more than four million human residents in Cape Town, it could add up to a very hot hotline. One afternoon, early in my residency, a hunch of a female baboon, drab in grey?brown utility-fur, climbed a drainpipe to our bedroom roof, carrying half a yellow papaya she had filched from a neighbour’s ill-guarded waste bin. Having eaten the scavenged fruit, she shifted against the glass of an overlooking window, backing up the callosities of her bare behind, and deposited a hot coiling turd. The offering dried and stuck to the tin roof, and my wife and I slept under it for months. Another day, not long ago, I came home to a baboon-wrecked kitchen. A high-speed entrance through a forgotten open door had allowed a hasty hijack of a supermarket delivery: six bananas skinned in a trice, a spilled starburst of dry spaghetti, two avocados pulped to one green bruise. 

‘The way we might live with our neighbouring wildlife can allow well-off communities to covertly fortify their homes against all unwanted visitors’

We had become ape-complacent and let our guard down, forgetting local baboon?wisdom, and ignoring the signs erected just metres from our front door. At each end of the village, the silhouette of a standing male baboon fills red warning triangles. Adjacent bigger notices, erected by the city council, warn that ‘Baboons Are Dangerous Wild Animals’ while, below the text, some icons direct us, the hairless apes, on various no-nos: don’t feed them, don’t drop tasty trash, don’t leave your car or house open. 

Between those home calls were other encounters. The scariest was a raid on my picnicking family a few kilometres south of Scarborough. Appearing from nowhere on a beach, a marauder, orange canines and grizzly snarl, bore down upon us and swiped at our sandwiches. I was duped into giving chase. Led through soft sand in fruitless labour after the decoy-thief, a blitzkrieg was meanwhile actioned back at our defenceless heart. My wife had to abandon our bags to hold on to our toddler son. I turned to see the two surrounded, as wolves might circle a stricken deer, with baboon-braves yipping, and a commanding adult searching with bureaucratic diligence, through our belongings, apparently with all the time in the world. It passed over our phones and cameras in favour of a bag of naartjies (tangerines). This raiding tactic was employed several times with other human families on nearby beaches that day. 

In Cape Town and its surroundings, humans encounter baboons on a regular basis, often learning the hard way that open windows prove too inviting for the apes to resist venturing in

Credit:Cyril Ruoso / Minden

The baboons are definitely – defiantly – winning these battles. But it’s our species’ fault. We have allowed these behaviours to arise: our urban way of living has shown the baboons theirs. Why shouldn’t they ape us? Worse than that, though, winning these battles might mean that the same animals will, ultimately, lose the war. 

In South Africa’s Western Cape (the administrative region including Cape Town), the situation is complicated by the fact that baboons are a protected species: they cannot be exterminated as pests. The Baboon Hotline is the citizen-facing part of a wider ‘Urban Baboon Programme’ attempting managed wildlife solutions. The target is to keep baboons out of the city for 90 per cent of the time. At present the municipality outsources its obligations to a private firm providing a form of monkey mind-control. On almost every journey out from our village suburb I pass baboon monitors at the roadside. These uniformed human workers (there are 50 across the city) are trying to get physically and psychically between the apes and wherever they want to go, seeking to erect a fence in the minds of the baboons. The animals are supposed to interpret their human opposites as a rival troop onto whose territory they should not pass. Some contractors add paint guns to their arsenal of persuasion. However, the monitoring only works for some animals some of the time. 

When I arrived in Scarborough, a breakaway baboon gang (runaways from a wilder living troop based in the national park to our south) had taken up residence in the village, living off domestic food waste, garden robberies and kitchen break-ins (I was lax about our door, but among the first South African lessons I learned was how to baboon-proof my wheelie bin). The baboons hadn’t read the warning signs, neither had enough villagers paid attention to them, nor had any of the monitoring of the animals kept them from trespassing in search of easy food. These four females and two of their young, now boldly dependent upon people, divided the village’s human denizens. Many welcomed the animals and sought a way for them to live in the community. Others had a more rivalrous sense of the meeting of mammals. As long as there have been farms in South Africa, farmers have culled baboons for their raids on crops, fruit trees and even livestock – formerly vegetarians, the apes acquired a taste for lamb in 19th-century South Africa. The city, using its outsourced expertise, declared that the baboon status quo in Scarborough was not good for the animals, and called for direct intervention. Opportunistic parasitism was no healthy way for any wild primate to live: baboon habituation and dependency was a dead end. City life, cheek by jowl with people, was no good for the apes. The animals were not to become the villagers’ pets and should be rewilded. The errant individuals were captured, sterilised or administered contraception, and relocated elsewhere in the country to a home away from people. While the scientific understanding that prompted it cannot be faulted, you don’t have to be a victim of recent South African history to feel uneasy about such a proposal. We have heard no more about them. Their disappearance itself seems telling: this wildlife solution was only ever going to be an answer for our species, a passing of our ape problem on to someone else, and no real answer for the baboons themselves, of course, or for their problem with us. 

The fractious co-existence of the two species – us and them – is repeatedly called out as problematic. Yet measures introduced by the municipality and its outsourced expertise
to try and manage the situation, such as fences around properties and over vineyards simply perpetuate the war

Credit:Halden Krog / AP / Shutterstock

Some residential communities in Cape Town have paid for baboon-proof electric fences to be erected around their properties. Semi-urban vineyards have done this too. You can see one opposite Pollsmoor Prison. The prison fence looks less intimidating. One baboon expert (man, not monkey), who addressed our village at the time of the fuss over the four vagabonds, urged Scarborough to consider paying for a barrier to keep the apes out. Another suburb had dithered, he told us, until it was pointed out that the shock of the fizzing fence keeps human burglars away as much as thieving baboons. The way we might live with our neighbouring wildlife can allow well-off communities to covertly fortify their homes against all unwanted visitors without appearing to be scaredy-cat neurotics. 

Additional warning signs at the edge of our suburb include a red triangle with a thick black exclamation mark and beneath it the subject: ‘Baboons’. I have been tempted to add a possessive apostrophe to the word: Baboons’. The edit would have no practical value for any animal concerned, but my time with the baboons has made me believe that where I live ought to be where a baboon could live too. Emotionally, I want that. All evidence to date, all the attempts at co?existence, unmanaged as it once was, or managed as it is, say that living together with baboons is impossible. We cannot. Yet, we are already too close to one another and will not be kept apart, and so the war will grind on, and it is hard to imagine the hairier combatant coming out on top.

Lead image: Human monitors are armed with paintball guns to try and manage the baboons. Credit: Gallo Images / Shutterstock

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