In the chic world of the modern safari, the baboon (Genus: Papio) is not an obvious candidate for anyone’s must-see list. He’s just too common, in every sense of the word. But there is more to his familiar scruffy appearance and sometimes alarming antics than meets the casual eye. By Len Rix.
here are in fact five major species of baboon. They differ in size, colour, and certain behaviours. They range from the hamadryas in the north to the chacmas down in the Cape peninsula. Yellows and olives roam the East African savannahs; red, or Guinea, baboons are found in the west. They thrive because they are cunning and adaptable, needing only water, grassland to forage, and trees (or a handy cliff face) to nest in, away from their big cat predators. Of all primates, they have the most contact with humans: often involving pillage, the hurling of sticks and stones, angry cries, scamperings in the dark; and loitering with intent.
A familiar, not always welcome, sight at picnic spots, or lurking around the maize fields. But looking into that dog-like face, with its long snout and snub nose, the little eyes rather too close together, the whiskery eyebrows, the low forehead under its hood of scruffy fur – there’s something disturbingly human in the flat, neutral stare. This is not the coy charm of a canny chimp, or the mystic gaze of a soulful gorilla. Perhaps he is as disenchanted with us as we are with him? (In ancient Egypt baboons were venerated as gods.)
Reported to have killed leopards, a gang of these hoodies flashing their eyebrows and baring those fangs will see most visitors off. Mostly they feed on grass, fruit, seeds, berries, bark, roots and insects, and fresh scorpion is considered a delicacy; but given the chance, those snarling canines – as long as your finger – will tear vervet monkeys and even small antelopes to pieces.
Is their current reputation rubbish?
With nostrils that can smell fruit 3km away, and an acquired taste for junk food, they will terrorise foolish tourists who ignore the warnings not to feed them. Given that one greasy hamburger provides calories equal to four hours’ foraging in the veld, it’s a no-brainer. Capable of opening doors, windows and fridges, a party of Cape chacmas recently raided their local café in Scarborough, stuffing avocados and bananas and swilling wine from opened bottles. Confronted by a female member of staff, they lived up to their Andy Capp credentials and slouched off only in response to direct male authority.
A gentle touch
Left to themselves, another side emerges. Baboon society is subtler and wiser than many would suppose. Kinder and more intimate too, perhaps because, the chauvinistic hamadryas apart, they are matrilineal. Male sexual and status rivalry is contained by well-understood codes, and seldom results in violence. Social bonds are constantly reinforced by gentle acts of grooming. Maternal love is real; friendships can be intense. Baboons are known to grieve, and to deal with grief affirmatively by turning to new grooming partners. Sexual availability is expressed in the language of bottoms, large, ungainly protuberances that swell and turn red with the onset of ovulation. Baboons also use many vocal signals though there is debate as to whether they are aware that other creatures have mental states that can be changed by calls and gestures. Not all females, however, keep abreast of this controversy, emiting louder-than-usual cries when mating with higher-than-usual-status males, to let the other girls know what they’re missing.
Full of character
Baboons live in troops of about 50, of whom seven or eight will be adult males. They rise (or descend) a little after dawn, and sit around in small groups of grooming pairs while the young ones scamper and play. Then they move out, youngsters now clasped to the breast or joyriding on mother’s back, fanning purposefully through the bush in search of food. After three or four hours they rest. Then they forage again, until the return to base at sunset. The day ends with further grooming, and bed.
You have only to watch them facing a challenge to see how spectacularly individual they are. Something as simple as fording a shallow stream will produce fifty separate solutions. Some plod doggedly, flinching at the wetness; others scamper and frolic. The scout (alpha male) stops half way through and turns round to see who is lagging behind. One youngster takes a running jump and hurls himself along in great splashing bounds, squealing with delight. Familiar, perhaps, but given a chance, baboons can be every bit as fascinating –and charming – as their more fashionable cousins, the great apes.