Baboon Minders of Scarborough

Drive an hour south of Cape Town, to the tip of the Peninsula, and you’ll find Scarborough, a random scattering of houses and shacks perched between the wild, thundering waves of the Atlantic and the steep mountains of Slangkop and Red Hill.

Gale force north-westers, icy rain and flooded dirt roads are a feature of winter here and in summer the howling south- easters whip the sand along the beach and carry the bracing smell of rotting kelp.

Nature lovers’ heaven, really.

Miles from the traffic jams and petty crime of suburban Cape Town, there are a number of self- employed writers, musicians and laid- back surfheads who choose to live here, environmentalists to a man. In recent years computer programmers and stockbrokers have moved in, building upmarket houses on the mountain but still espousing the easy-going lifestyle.

This doesn’t mean they’re asleep to the wiles of developers, and forceful action groups have seen off several schemes to bring them progress.

They’ve defended their right to a glorious lack of anything that smacks of convenience, so that the only shop is Mickey’s Mousetrap, a small window which opens for three hours a day to sell bread and milk over the counter before snapping shut again. For anything more, they make the trip along the mountainous coast road to Fish Hoek, supermarkets and civilization.

You get the picture.

But along with this close-to-nature life come the troops of Chacma baboons (Papio Ursinis) which roam the mountains above the houses.

Living in family groups of thirty or more, the alpha male weighs in at 35kg and is armed with impressive canines which are longer and sharper than a lion’s. These intelligent primates have discovered that unlimited food is available inside houses and any open door or window is an invitation to a meal. Once inside, cupboards and refrigerator doors present no problem.

If the house is locked, then the rubbish bins offer easy pickings.

After some years of outrage, several irate residents declared war on these cheeky animals with a taste for sliced bread and biscuits. Forbidden to use guns because the baboons are protected species in the Peninsula, they had to resort to throwing firecrackers and stones to frighten them off, but nothing worked for long.

Soon battle lines were drawn and harsh words were exchanged between the “Shoot- the- buggers” faction and the “We’re- invading- their- space” pacifists.

The pacifists formed a Baboon Management Team to persuade the would-be baboon hunters to be more tolerant and to work out a definite policy of baboon control. Members were drawn from the environmental big guns in the National Parks Board, Cape Nature Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund. The main movers were primatologists Dave Gaynor and Ruth Kansky, whose studies of the baboons played a major role in guiding the team.

They came up with a unique answer to the problem. Official Baboon Monitors.

Eight unemployed men from Masiphumelele, a nearby squatter settlement, were recruited, and their brief was to follow the baboons during the daylight hours and keep them away from the houses.

Within days, head monitor Thembele Jantjies and his men were forcing the baboons to keep to the higher slopes of the mountains with a combination of shouts, whistles and arm waving.

“When we first started, the trick was to find out where they slept each night,” says Thembele, who had previously worked in game parks in the Eastern Cape and knows the ways of baboons.

“We found they have three main sleeping sites, in caves and under the overhanging rocks. Once we knew where they slept, we could find them the next morning and just follow them.”

Thembele collects the team in his pick-up at daybreak each morning and drops them off near the sleeping areas of the different troops. Monitors are equipped with wet-weather gear, uniforms, and identifying badges.

There are three separate troops on these mountains, each with their own well-defined stamping grounds. The Oliphantsbos baboons, the Slangkop troop , and the Da Gama troop have leaders for which the monitors have well chosen names: Jilo ( One Eye) of the Slangbos troop, Twatsa of the da Gama troop who has an injured shoulder but still maintains his position as alpha male, and Eric. There are also the lone trouble makers- Kalky who was brought over from Kalk Bay because he refused to run with the troop there, and Qiri-Qiri (The Foreigner).

This last baboon was causing havoc in the suburbs of Tokai ten miles across the mountains, so he was darted by Nature Conservation officials and brought over to Scarborough to see if he would integrate with them.

“He has the right name because he steals the women and picks fights with the men,” chuckles Thembele, “Wherever he goes he causes trouble. Kalky also doesn’t like other baboons. He walks by himself, he’s a very lonely man.”

Kalky, a healthy male in the prime of life, is one of the better known personalities of Scarborough and has his own personal monitor. Lone baboons tend to get into houses more aggressively than a whole troop and he has made Scarborough his personal fiefdom. Most residents tolerate him- they just make sure they have lockable rubbish bins.

Thembele keeps a record of all births and deaths and the monitors know exactly how many baboons belong to each troop.

“Sometimes a baboon will get run over if he is too near the road when it’s getting dark,” he says. “Also, when they come into a new troop, or they reach maturity, male baboons will attack babies because they want to start their own family line.”

Recently, eight baby baboons were killed outright by a full- grown male intent on muscling his way in as leader of the troop. Nature in the raw.

“But there are so many ways that they are just like us,” says Thembele.

“When one baboon was injured, he was taken to the vet for three weeks. And when he came back, they were all hugging him and stroking him and shouting with excitement. Just like us. And the babies, when they are naughty, their mothers are very patient for a long time. Then suddenly, they will give them a smack and the baby cries. Just like our own families.”

The monitor programme is important in the management of these baboons, but it’s expensive. Baboon Matters is a small company recently formed to handle fundraising and management for this project.

They’re making it their business to inform people and school groups about baboons, to counteract the bad press baboons had in the pre-monitor days.

They’re stressing that baboons are an asset, with an enormous potential for sponsorship from big corporations who want to associate themselves with environmental issues.

The people of Baboon Matters have lots of ideas to make this programme self- sustaining and they also want to expand the skills of the monitors.

“We’re starting with a first- aid course for the whole team,” said Noel Ashton.

“Then we’re investigating a literacy programme for the men and after that we hope to find other roles they can fill like checking on mountain paths, reporting new growth of alien vegetation or spotting mountain fires.”

Soon they hope to train the monitors to act as field guides to conduct small groups of tourists up the mountain paths to watch the baboons.

Thembele and the others are very keen on this idea. They’ve seen how excited visitors get when they spot uniformed monitors playing traffic cop to a troop of thirty baboons crossing the road.

“We hear the click-click of the cameras from the buses, everyone wants a picture of us!” says Thembele.

But rubber-necking motorists can add to the problem. Tourists and locals alike can’t resist throwing fruit or biscuits to the baboons, even with the threat of a R500 fine if they’re spotted.

They just confirm a popular baboon equation: People equal take-aways.

Some of the baboons in the Nature Reserve alongside Scarborough have been so conditioned to expect handouts, they will go after women carrying handbags or packets containing souvenirs, giving the nervous visitor a close and exciting brush with local wild life.

“No matter how threatening they look, baboons will never attack a human being. But they’ll try and snatch whatever they perceive as food,” said Ruth Kansky of the management team.

“You just have to drop what you’re carrying and let the baboons inspect it. They usually lose interest when they see there is nothing to eat.”

Even the monitors are careful not to be seen eating their own lunch, walking well away from the troop and turning their backs while they eat.

Deprived of chocolate biscuits and yoghurt, baboons eat mainly insects, fynbos bulbs, shoots and leaves, living in harmony with the plants by aerating the soil and helping in seed dispersal.

These particular Chacmas are unique amongst baboons as they also roam the beaches, picking up sandhoppers and prising limpets and shellfish off the rocks to supplement their diet.

”But when there are ripe figs or guavas in the gardens, then we have a very hard time,” said Thembele, “No more leaves! Baboons can smell ripe fruit from two kilometers away and they run down the mountain so fast we can hardly keep up with them.”

Trevor Kotze is one resident who receives regular annual visits from these bold thieves, but he’s not bothered.

“It’s part of living here,” he said, looking up at the seven baboons which have given the monitor the slip and are stuffing themselves with fruit in the branches of his big guava tree. “They come here every year. They make a heck of a mess and my kids have to clean up after them.”

The Kotze children are on first- name terms with these baboons and can recognize Eric and George as they come thundering down the road with their females in tow, hotly pursued by their monitor who has been chasing after them from the slopes of Slangkop.

Since the introduction of the Monitor programme, Noel estimates that baboon invasion has been cut by 90%, although lone baboons like Kalky and Eric sometimes give their monitors the slip and go for the gold in someone’s pantry.

“We can’t always stop them going down to the houses,” said Thembele. “And then some people get angry when they see us jumping over their fences and shouting, but we’re only trying to head off the baboons.”

Except perhaps for a few months of babyhood, baboons don’t rate highly in the cute stakes.

They peer at you arrogantly with their small yellow eyes, which are too close together for beauty, and those canines are much too long for comfort. So why do we need to protect and cherish these particular baboons?

The citizens of Cape Town are blessed with the mountains close enough to be enjoyed by everyone. They’re fortunate to number baboons, porcupine and several species of buck amongst the local fauna, many of which can be seen by anyone going for a Sunday stroll. Not many cities can equal this.

“Wild life all over the world is in dire straits,” says Ruth Kansky, “As the human population has increased, we’ve become less and less tolerant, especially of primates who are in competition with humans for food.

“But with our baboon monitoring team, hopefully Cape Town is setting an example to the rest of the world, showing that man can live together with wild life without destroying it for our own convenience.”

3 thoughts on “Baboon Minders of Scarborough

  1. Moondreamer

    Hey Ginny,

    I found your great website through womagwriter’s blog and just wanted to say thank you for the very useful list of websites. I have a quick read of this article, which made me smile … I live in a very different Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, England, with very different wildlife, including foxes, badgers and hedgehogs!

    I hope you won’t mind me including your website on my fledgling blog as I would like to use my blog to help writers.

    Hoping you had a fab start to the new year, wishing you all the best with your writing i 2008!

    :o)

    Reply
  2. Maria

    What a wonderful load of information! What a stunning story of humans and animals making the best of their more intimate modern day interaction! Just drove through there yesterday and DID NOT KNOW about this detail of that wonderful spot – now I know and will enjoy my next trip through there even more next time!

    Reply
  3. Kaylin Jacobs

    Hey Ginny
    I am a 17 year old girl living in Scarborough. I go to Wynberg Girls High School and we’ve been assigned to do a documentary on anything we chose. I felt that doing a documentary on the baboons of Scarborough would be really different and get me full marks for this project, but I have a problem, I have NO IDEA where to find the organization so that I can interview them and ask them questions, if you could please give me the details of where I could find these people I would really appreciate it. thank you so much 🙂

    Reply

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