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Baboons Behaving Badly

Lock your doors. And your windows. Don’t make eye contact. Keep your bread roll close to your chest, or it may get snatched…by a baboon. The situation in Gorongosa National Park is not this extreme. The baboons are generally a friendly nuisance, and for many, a tourist attraction. However, in other national parks the situation has already escalated, and it risks doing so here unless preventative action is taken. Soon.

Trash pit behind the ‘fiscais’ (rangers) building. This is where much of the trash of the tourist camp gets thrown into a pit and burned, to the delight of the camp’s baboons. Photo by Isabelle Rogerson

Gorongosa National Park is a pearl in the centre of Mozambique, south-east Africa, and is currently being returned to its former glory after a long civil war rather dimmed its shine. The park is home to over 225 troops of baboons, at least a couple of which are living inside the main tourist camp Chitengo. Baboons get up early. By 5:30am, they have entered the camp, by 6:30am they are sitting behind the staff canteen, waiting for one of their favourite foods: bread rolls.

I was in Gorongosa  until a few weeks ago with the Paleo-Primate Project team[1], studying the camp baboons for over a month. We started out giving them descriptive names: Scar-face, Limpy, Ripped-ear… After a while, we ran out of options, so I turned to Shakespeare for guidance. Mercutio is a young male with a strong, stocky build and a shapely curved muzzle. Shylock is a skinny old male with a broken back foot and a face full of battle-scars. Identifying the baboons helps us to understand how many troops are in the camp, and who the main ‘raiders’ (i.e. the thieves) are.

“Scar-face”, a large male and the main baboon ‘raider’. Scar-face is always punctually behind the canteen at 6:30am, and as the alpha of his troop, he will be the first one to snatch a roll. His name comes from the two small scars on his left cheek. Photo by Isabelle Rogerson.

We also set up camera traps to assess the total number of baboons coming in each day, and have been following them on foot to find the ‘conflict hotspots’ in camp. These usually turn out to be either a bin or a budding mango tree.

Shot of scar-face’s behind in one of the bins around 7:30am. Photo by Isabelle Rogerson.
Picture of ‘Mercutio’ at the trash pit, eating an orange. Photo by Isabelle Rogerson.
Camera-trap photo from the ‘firepit’ at 3pm. Photo by Isabelle Rogerson.

I’ve seen a thing or two in terms of human-baboon interactions in camp, so I am going to take this opportunity to give some guidelines on what to do and what not to do if you ever find yourself sharing a restaurant with a baboon.

  1. Do Not Feed Baboons.

Baboons are like us: they will always go for the easiest option. Would you rather spend four hours on the savanna looking for appealing bits of grass and seeds, or have an appetising croissant, hot from the oven? Stupid question? The baboons think so as well.

  1. Lock doors and windows.

A colleague studying baboons in Cape Town once told me she saw a baboon walk into someone’s kitchen and open the fridge. They are clever primates, and they have opposable thumbs. You wouldn’t leave your window open for a human thief, so don’t leave it open for a nonhuman primate.

  1. Watch your kids.

Male baboons can attain 40kg, and have canines bigger than a leopard or a lion. They are also sexist: large males are not scared of women, even less so of children. Running straight towards a male or making eye-contact can be considered a threat. For this reason, be very careful about where your children play. Baboons do not make good playmates; they hardly ever share.

[1] For more information, see: https://primobevolab.web.ox.ac.uk/home

Baboon named Gracey eating the flowers of the ‘sausage tree’ (named after its long, vertically hanging fruit). Photo by Isabelle Rogerson.

Isabelle Rogerson: Imagine a white-haired six-year-old in an oversized lab coat, sleeves drooping onto the floor. This is an accurate picture of my early childhood. Now, I’m a budding conservationist with a passion for protecting wildlife whilst conserving the livelihoods of local farmers. I study human-primate conflict, looking for ways humans can learn to co-exist peacefully with other animals. This requires a diverse toolkit from various different disciplines, which is why I began studying English literature and Philosophy (BA), before moving on to Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology (MSc) at the University of Oxford. I am travelling between various national parks in Africa, from my previous location in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, to my current stop in Comoé National Park, Ivory Coast.

Isabelle Rogerson participated in the National Geographic Society Sciencetelling Bootcamp in Gorongosa National Park, September 2017. More than a dozen researchers and conservationists associated with Mozambique’s iconic park partnered with a team of National Geographic storytellers to develop personal and professional storytelling skills through public speaking, videography, photography, social media and blogging. The multi-day Sciencetelling course was created especially for scientists and conservationists to effectively communicate their work to audiences beyond peer-reviewed journals. A selection of their blog posts, photographs and videos will be published on the Sciencetelling Stories blog. Learn more about National Geographic’s Sciencetelling Bootcamp program.