Baboons get bad press: the price they pay, one has to suppose, for not being as cute as chimps - or having a human like Jane Goodall for a champion. They're more dog-faced than baby-faced, they have big teeth and a reputation for aggression. True, you wouldn't want to tangle with a troop of baboons - an adult male baboon can weigh 30kg or more and they've been known to inflict serious injury on unwary predators including leopards - but in encounters with humans they almost invariably come off second best.

I'm most familiar with the Chacma baboons of Southern Africa, papio ursinus: reviled as vermin and shot at or poisoned by farmers, experimented upon in research laboratories, more or less ignored by tourists and environmentalists because they seem so ugly and so common, the butt of jokes… did you ever see that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets his hand stuck in a vending machine because he won't let go of the can? When I was a kid they used to tell that story about baboons: the best way to trap a baboon, I learned, is to cut a hole in a pumpkin just big enough for a baboon hand, but not big enough for a baboon hand full of pumpkin seeds. They're that dumb.

Last year there was a proposal to slaughter them and can their meat for export.

Most people encounter baboons only in the parks and on the fringes of the roads that slice through wild places: there are always signs saying "Don't feed the baboons", but someone always does. Eventually poor Baviaan, so accustomed to being fed by humans that he becomes a pest, frightens some tourists by banging on their car too insistently and someone comes to shoot him. So it goes.

Actually baboons are among the brightest of the primates and the social organisation of a baboon troop is complex, subtle, multi-layered and fascinating. They fight with each other a little, they defend each other against enemies, they forage together, they look after their young, they form lifelong friendships… they spend a lot of time grooming each other. Young males leave their birth troops to seek their fortunes (and stir the gene pool a bit); the females tend to stay at home. They all make a lot of noise.

The best known story of a human-baboon relationship is that of James Wide, the crippled railway signalman of Uitenhage, and his companion Jack. I read it in Eve Palmer's classic book of the Karoo The Plains of Camdeboo: Jack pumped and carried water, fetched wood, helped with the house and garden, locked up every morning, pushed and pulled the trolley Wide used to get around and helped him with his duties. Once when Wide was ill Jack managed all the signalling himself, under supervision. They were together for nine years before Jack died in 1890, "the pride of the district".

That was one baboon; not enough to change the (undeserved) reputation of the rest of his family. Their human cousins are exterminating them at a steady pace. There are still plenty of baboons, of course, hordes of 'em; but there were hordes of just about everything, once.

Baboons get bad press ... but in encounters with humans they almost invariably come off second best

We were at Cape Point nature reserve, just to walk down to the beach and idle away the Sunday. The baboons were wandering around, several meters away, as usual. You don't feed them. They get used to it and get aggro when they don't get their own way. Some damn fool tourist always does anyway.

Anita had opened the boot of the car, taking out food and snacks. The next thing we knew, a large male had bounded up and perched on the lip of the boot right behind Anita's back. He immediately reached in and picked up a bottle of iced tea in each little hand and bounded a few paces back, using his brown hairy arms as extra legs.

I eyed him very warily, thinking of something to do, my heart racing - those teeth are almost as long as my thumb, and he's supposedly an even match for a leopard. I didn't want to mix it up with that bastard. Stitches and rabies shots - no thanks.

Werner called nervously to Anita but by the time she turned, the baboon was away from her and she didn't see him.

He soon realised that his catch was inedible hard plastic to any animal that didn't know how to operate a screw top, and he put them down on the tarmac. He took another bound forward, and Anita screamed in surprise as he grabbed a large foil-pack of pretzels right out of her hands.

The warden was now strolling in our direction, holding a walking-stick. I wished I'd thought of the baboons and brought one. (They are bright enough to know that a human pointing a stick at them is bad news, but not bright enough to tell the difference between a walking stick and a boom-stick).

The baboon saw him and the stick and didn't wait, but bounded off into the bush, scaling the steep slope with inhuman ease. We could see him, sitting on a rock down below about 20 meters away. He knew what to do with the packet. He had bitten right through the foil and plastic, and set it down and was picnicking on the pretzels. Damn. They were good pretzels - Honey and mustard.

I told the warder that I thought that particular baboon was in need of shooting. You can't blame a cunning opportunistic scavenger for being true to it's animal nature, but they can't unlearn what people teach them.

A lot of the time this troop comes out ahead, not second best, by raiding the humans' vast supplies of food. The humans don't learn, not at a tourist spot when it's different humans each day.

Here's what the Cape Point nature reserve pamphlet has to say on Baboons:

The Chacma baboon Papino Ursus troops on the Cape Peninsula are the only protected population of this species in Africa. They subsist on fruits, roots, honey, bulbs, insects and scorpions. During low tide, they may be seen roaming the beaches, feeding on sand hoppers and shellfish, behaviour believed to be unusual in primates. Please be aware that baboons can be dangerous and are attracted by food. Visitors must not feed or tease them. Baboons that have been conditioned to receive food from humans may have to be destroyed.

DO keep a safe distance from baboons
DO move away slowly if a baboon approaches you
DO NOT display food when baboons are visible
DO NOT open the doors or windows of your car when baboons are present
DO NOT feed baboons. You will be fined.

Bab*oon" (?), n. [OE. babewin, baboin, fr.F. babouin, or LL. babewynus. Of unknown origin; cf. D. baviaan, G. pavian, baboon, F. babin lip of ape, dogs, etc., dial. G. bappe mouth.] Zool.

One of the Old World Quadrumana, of the genera Cynocephalus and Papio; the dog-faced ape. Baboons have dog-like muzzles and large canine teeth, cheek pouches, a short tail, and naked callosities on the buttocks. They are mostly African. See Mandrill, and Chacma, and Drill an ape.


© Webster 1913.

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