Cape Baboons adopting new trickery, experts warn

2017-11-14 15:43 - Unathi Nkanjeni
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Cape Town - South Africa is home to the Chacma baboon species, which is known to gather in troops of four to two hundred. It is the biggest species of baboon and is headed by a hierarchy system consisting of the most powerful male in the group.  

Yet as alluring and intriguing as theses animals are - one must be cautious when approaching them - they're especially troublesome for tourists around the Cape Peninsula area. Tourists are advised never to interact with them and especially not to feed them.

SEE: WATCH: Baboons behaving badly + NB safety tips to keep in mind

And food is a key motivator for these animals, as a new study released by the University of Cape Town suggests they've honed their raid procedure to a tee. Data gathered in the study of Extreme behavioural shifts by baboons exploiting risky, resource-rich, human-modified environments, using bespoke baboon-tracking collars suggests these cunning baboons use a "sit-and-wait" tactic.

“Raiding baboons are a real challenge in the Cape Peninsula. The baboons enter properties to raid in gardens and bins‚ but also enter homes and sometimes take food directly from people”‚ says professor Justin O’Riain‚ director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at UCT and co-author of the study.

Previous studies reveal that some male baboons are still finding their way into urban spaces‚ despite a city baboon management strategy adopted to keep them away.

SEE: EXCLUSIVE: Egyptian Geese launch vicious attack on cocky, egg-thief baboon

Raiding baboon troop management

According to the study, the areas monitored have been categorised as one of five broad habitat categories - fynbos, trees, meadows, vineyards and urban areas - based on researcher knowledge of the site and images from Google Earth.

Urban areas in the study included private residential suburbs, vineyards and commercial properties as well as restaurants. Initially The City of Cape Town and a local farm employed baboon ‘rangers’ to actively deter baboons from the vineyards and urban areas. This involved the rangers monitoring the troops, following their movements to keep them in sight, and using noise (shouts and whistles), physical presence and paintball guns to deter the baboons.

It saw two alternating teams of five field rangers managed the baboons on a daily basis from approximately 7am to 5 pm, with each team working four days on, four days off.

ALSO SEE: Baby monkey has caffeine overdose after stealing tourist’s coffee

Tracking collars reveal sophisticated 

Dr Gaëlle Fehlmann‚ lead author of the study‚ says people assume the baboons don’t have enough food in their natural habitats and therefore have no choice but to forage in town.

But the research conducted over 109 days disputes this theory. 

"In fact‚ our research shows there is plenty of food in the natural environment where there is very little risk of the baboons being disturbed by anyone," he says, adding that the chances of human-baboon conflicts in urban areas are high‚ but so are the food rewards‚ which are 10 times richer in terms of calories.

Male baboons are known to be the most frequent raiders, as a result 8 adult males within the study's focal troop were cage-trapped and sedated by a certified veterinarian before being fitted with a custom-built tracking collar. Two collars failed to record data, decreasing the sample size of the study overall to 6 individuals 

According to Fehlmann, these collars weighed less than 2.5% of the body mass of the baboons and were approved for use by Swansea University Ethics Committee, while the trappings procedure was overseen by the Baboon Technical Team.

'Short but intense forays to urban areas'

The data recorded also shows that male baboons engage in short but intense forays to urban areas when the opportunity presented itself‚  revealing the baboons prefer to stay at the city's edge as they "sit-and-wait" for these opportunities.

Dr Andrew King‚ head of Swansea University’s Shoal group and senior author of the study says, “We suspected the baboons were doing something clever to allow them to minimise the risks associated with urban foraging‚ and the data collected from the collars confirmed this." 

The data shows that because of their raiding tactics, the tracked baboons actually only foraged for only about 10% of their time. This is considerably less than the non-raiding baboons in the Cape Peninsula or elsewhere on the African continent, who "spend at least half of their time foraging".

Added to this, Fehlmann says the results conducted by the study present unequivocal evidence of extreme behavioural flexibility in these baboons.

"Behavioural flexibility has long been considered a central component of a species' ability to cope with human-induced environmental changes‚ but has been difficult or impossible to quantify in wild animal populations.  The new tracking technologies employed by the researchers are changing this,” he adds. 

Always Remember:

Mother nature and its wildlife wields a much bigger force than we think - we must always be cautious. Locals intervene as baboons attack tourists and chase them off with sticks and a screeching call to assert dominance over them. 

It might seem entertaining to watch these creatures but a safe distance must always be maintained. Baboons have gained the confidence and capacity to grab food or drinks out of your hand. If they are threatened they will attack and bite individuals.  

3 tips when dealing with baboons

1. Do not feed them and do not carry food on you!

2. Keep windows up and doors locked at all times. 

3. Maintain a safe distance at all times.

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