Sunday, September 13, 2009

Seeing the Soul of the Ape one Sunday

Finally, I return to tell you about another experience in my life here at the southern tip of Africa. For me, the event is one of the 'thin threads' that Stacey Battat, former broadcast journalist, writes about in her book with the same title - it was life-changing.

"I want people to be i
nspired by other's real life experiences and have something positive come out of that moment", says Stacey and I also hope this story will be a thread leading to a positive outcome. Or at least, prevent a negative one...

It happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon in South Africa with the mountain ridge bright against the blue sky of Cape Town. I have gotten myself into the habit of driving along the coastline past the beautiful naval village Simon's Town up to Cape Point and back home to Kommetjie. Usually, this would be "me time", but a very dear spirited and spiritual friend invited me to share a picnic and we set out on the trip.

And it was the 19th of July - by the end of the coming week, we had to submit a business case to a potential sponsor. Our team at Uthango has been working on a this proposal with an international flavour for almost 18 months. Indeed, an important week was ahead and I was in need of some prayer and reflection with a friend. Almost as important to me was the opportunity to enjoy the wild baboons along the road, and see how the troops are doing with their new offspring. Baboons used to frequent my home over at Kommetjie, but some property development and electric fencing (for crime) changed their habits and I rarely see them in our street now. There are eleven known troops in our area, so I knew we would find the friendly Smitswinkel troop on the "other side" close to Miller's Point, often right next to the road:

I have always loved to observe baboons - from a very young age when my parents would take us to the Kruger National Game Reserve and we would spend hours observing wild life from a car parked at a waterhole. And my all-time favourites have always been the warthogs, the baboons and of course, meerkats. Interestingly enough, I realised later that these animals all have social constructs that make for excellent observation and that my own academic interest in the fields of Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology was possibly fuelled at a young, impressionable age right there in nature: Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, a husband-and-wife team of biologists at the University of Pennsylvania, have spent 14 years observing the Moremi baboons:

"Baboons provide you with an example of what sort of social and cognitive complexity is possible in the absence of language and a theory of mind," she said. "The selective forces that gave rise to our large brains and our full-blown theory of mind remain mysterious, at least to us." (Source: How Baboons Think, Yes Think by Nicholas Wade)
The events of that Sunday would reinforce my belief that baboons are highly intelligent and adapt to their environment in order to survive. More importantly, I would experience the result of year's of human interference with nature first hand (excuse the pun) when a large solitary alpha male would unexpectedly open the car door with its handle at the driver's side and proceeded to jump on my friend - fangs and all. It all happened in seconds really. We JUST passed the rest of the family (below) and turned into a popular look-out spot (where I took this beautiful picture) and waited to see what the yawning male would do before we settled down:

I treat baboons with the utmost respect, and NEVER feed them - unlike some uneducated tourists that would "like to get the perfect picture" and then lure the baboons closer to their vehicles with fast food or fruit. Doing so, was an accident waiting to happen - and it did: Big Manie (my name for the baboon) stormed to the car, yanked the door open and went directly for my small-framed friend's face where she still sat buckled up in the driver's seat. She had the clarity of mind to grab him at the throat and push back and at the same time, I fell across her to try and get her door closed again. We managed, but before we could shut it, he opened it again and lashed out at my arm - leaving red scratches with his nail and one cut with a very dirty nail deep enough to see the bone of my hand under the bleeding flesh. This wound would later become infected despite best efforts and is still not 100% what it used to be. (Sounds a bit like a bit of fictional horror when I try and describe the moment of sheer angst).

In that instant - Gone was the images in my mind of tiny baby baboons frollocking in the trees along the road, and I was left with the crazed and bewildered picture of a confused and wild
animal trying to get to what-he-believed a source of food. We were simply an obstacle to be removed. A few weeks later I would read the LAST line in the warning signs scattered here and there along the scenic road: "Keep Doors LOCKED and Windows CLOSED" and I know why:

In 2006, an article by Biran Hayward appeared in the South African media : "Brutal baboon attacks raise concern" and I retrieved it in writing this entry. I am fascinated by the different opinions of the experts and copy some of it here for your reference:
Johannesburg-based Karen Wentworth, South African representative of the International Primate and Exotic Animal Association, said the problems people were experiencing with baboons were self-inflicted. "A lot of the problems come from people feeding the primates. They (primates) will take food wherever they can get it, and will go back to that place for more," she said. "They become less afraid of humans and it lessens their wildness, which is when they cause problems."

Cape Nature baboon management team head Melikh
aya Pantsi said it was important for people to be cautious when dealing with baboons. "It is very rare that a baboon would attack a human being. They might jump on you to grab what they think is food, but they are generally not aggressive," he said.

But Graeme Young, conservationist at the Ndlambe
conservation department in Port Alfred, said it was not unheard of for baboons to attack humans without provocation. Sometimes older males were kicked out of their troop and became aggressive towards humans as they scavenged for food on their own, he said. "We've had reports of an old male baboon that has spent up to three weeks a year disturbing residents in Port Alfred - running through gardens and rummaging through rubbish bins."

Jenny Trethowan, of Cape Town-based baboon monit
oring project Baboon Matters, said attacks on humans were usually not the fault of the baboon. "When you unpack the attack, usually the person has done something wrong."
We drove to the hospital that Sunday in July and I cried - and of all the things I were thinking at the time, I was deeply saddened and worried that the joy I get from observing baboons would be forever replaced by fear. I was also angry, because I knew that this baboon was mistreated by humans before - there was no respect left towards the two humans in the car that invaded his space. Did we do something wrong? No, not in person. (Except for not locking the doors, but assuming we are safe with CLOSED doors and windows). Did we do something wrong as human beings - collectively? All the time.

Photo by Mike Golby

Today, I am deeply concerned about the way in which the well-respec
ted local organisation, Baboon Matters, was replaced by another new agency, with no track-record that I know of, to monitor the baboons. (This is another matter currently at the Ombudsman). In today's newspaper there is a report that the new appointee's monitors are not just walking with the baboons and encouraging them to stay away from homes and cars (and people) as they used to do, but are now using WHIPS - supposedly to make a cracking noise. The piece in the Weekend Argus, titled 'Uproad over baboon sjamboks' by Helen Bramford, quotes Allan Perrins of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA: "The baboons appear to be up against 'Neanderthal' management techniques which have the capacity to terrify, traumatise and injure any unsuspecting, non-conforming baboon that happens to wander into 'our' space'". His objections about the use of whips to control the troups of baboons are shared by Beauty Without Cruelty: "Surely the role of CapeNature is to defend and protect our natural heritage and not to sjambok them into submission". The National Geographic completed a wonderful video clip about the lives of baboons close to where I live (copied here to view):

It is worth noting that the government and the nature conservation agencies in Cape Town also held a Baboon Expert Workshop early July 2009 and implied that "9 of the 17 troops were being effectively managed". Reading the notes on this workshop, it seems that the esteemed Doctor Justin O'Riain of the Baboon Research Unit at the University of Cape Town is the culprit who proposed the 'bear bangers and bull whips" - amongst others - as one of the 'active management' measures to be piloted. The same report mentions the troop that we encountered on my Sunday the 19th of July:

"We have a year’s worth of data for the Smitswinkel troop. Prior to the intervention, the troop was spending 25% of the time in Simon’s Town, raiding the urban areas regularly. As the home range is a linear area, the situation enabled a unique strategy. A virtual line was drawn and the baboons were to be kept south of this line. A range of tactics were used including bear bangers and bull whips and since the 3 June 09 the baboons have not been back into Simon’s Town. It is important to note how effective the GPS collars are working as the monitors can assess how to employ resources most effectively to keep the baboons out of the urban area".
I am no expert, but I am left to wonder: Did the 'pilot' banging on metal and use of whips in Simon's Town (by people) drive baboons away from the residential areas since June 2009? And did it leave them traumatised? further up the road? So when we met them a month later in July, there was a deeply-rooted bitterness against humans, which I have never encountered before in the South Peninisula. And still we have some people feeding these beautiful and fragile baboons from cars along the road... It MUST be confusing to them. Are humans driving baboons insane by acting so inconsistent? On the one hand, chasing away and with the other hand feeding. Then rather bring back monitors that walk with baboons and bond with them, and understand these stunning animals. Monitors that educate humans and not vice versa. We ARE in fact in THEIR space, and should act accordingly in my humble opinion.

We all need to get this right. And soon. I can live with the slight nerve damage and subsequent pain in my little finger which surfaced only last week as the wound healed inside. I can also live with the scar at the top of my hand which may need a bit of plastic surgery one day. I will battle to accept it if a child or unsuspecting tourist gets seriously hurt over at Simon's Town by this troop. We drove past the same place two week ago - and children were running outside (!!) a few metres from the baboons grazing on plastic bags filled with KFC left-overs. No monitors in sight.

So please, this is a very personal appeal: GET this. Please do not confuse baboons and sign their death sentence - or that of a human being observing them innocently - by feeding them or making them aggressive. Let them find their food naturally in the beautiful mountains of Cape Town and lead them away from human dwellings with ethical ways.

I continue to love baboons, and my respect for them as truly wild animals has only grown due to this incident. Like the blogger, AfricanPenguin, I wish to also share facts about the Chacma Baboons that frequent our world. The agencies working with baboons here made various information posters - like this one outside the Kommetjie Supermarket. The Kommetjie Primary School also completed a nice educational project (website) on understanding and dealing with baboons.

An Afrikaans naturalist, poet and writer wrote a wonderful book in 1912, translated as "The Soul of the Ape" and he based it on his behavioural study of the chacma baboons in the Waterberg. Eugene Marais
"became the first man to conduct a prolonged study of primates in the wild". He spent time with baboons and termites to learn from them. It was published in the year I was born, in 1969. My dad introduced me to the book as very young child and I think my love for baboons and literature started right there between the yellow pages. Marais was years ahead of his time:

Years later, he wrote in a letter, “No other worker in the field ever had the opportunities I had of studying primates under perfectly natural conditions. In other countries, you are lucky if you catch a glimpse of the same troop twice in a day. I lived among a troop of wild baboons for three years.

“I followed them on their daily excursions; slept among them; fed them night and morning on mealies (corn); learned to know each one individually; taught them to trust and to love me – and also, to hate me so vehemently that my life was several times in danger. So uncertain was their affection that I had always to go armed with a Mauser automatic under the left armpit like the American gangster!

“But I learned the innermost secrets of their lives. You will be surprised to learn of the dim and remote regions of the mind into which it led me. I think I discovered the real place in nature of the hypnotic condition in the lower animals and men. I have an entirely new explanation of the so-called subconscious mind and the reason for its survival in man.

“I think that I can prove that Freud’s entire conception is based on a fabric of fallacy. No man can ever attain to anywhere near a true conception of the
subconscious in man who does not know the primates under natural conditions.”

I had a life-changing day on the 19th of July - one sunny day in Cape Town. I really did think it's our last day on earth when a massive alpha male opened the door and attacked my friend and I - and this, in the 'safety' of our car without provocation or without any food visible. And to fight of a baboon, to walk away relatively uninjured, reminded me how fragile life is and how quickly it can pass. May we do the best we can with what we have, every day. There are quite a few things on my own list that I would like to get to....

On a lighter note, I just LOVE this MamaTaxi comic strip by Deni Brown and Gavin Thomson and hope we will never have to ask, "What baboons? There's not one":


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