Baboon shepherds with paint ball guns

I’ve just enjoyed a whole new South African experience. I heard gun fire and felt excitement, not concern, and I ran towards it.

I was on a mountain on the Cape peninsula, looking for the monitors keeping a troop of baboons out of the village of Scarborough below. One tactic they use is firing paintball guns at the baboons. I thought I’d heard their guns but couldn’t find them, so eventually gave up and looked for another group of monitors. The second group of monitors were much easier to find. They were standing in the middle of a road, wearing fluorescent yellow jackets and firing their paintball guns at the Smitswinkel Bay troop of baboons. You could hardly miss them, the monitors that is. Small puffs of blue paint exploded on the rocks beneath the baboons who were trying to access houses at Miller’s Point. I decided not to think about what was causing the bangs I’d excitedly run to earlier in the day, as it clearly wasn't paintball guns, which I realised are rather quiet.

The baboon “problem”

Baboon on road.jpg

The Cape peninsula’s baboons have lost much of their habitat to human developments. Previously dispersing male baboons would head north to new territories but today Cape Town acts as a massive barricade preventing that possibility. The peninsula’s baboons are effectively an island community, with the genetic diversity issues that brings with it.  Baboons have learned to raid houses for food and open car doors snatching snacks from camera brandishing tourists. Friends of mine have watched terrified as a baboon has entered their home, walked nonchalantly to the kitchen and opened the fridge. In a few minutes eating our food they gain far more energy than from a day’s foraging. In recent years this has led to a dramatic increase in baboon / human conflict. 

Management methods

A "bear banger"

A "bear banger"

Various management methods have been attempted, from baboon proof bins and electric fencing to euthanizing those seen as “problem animals”. In 2012 the City of Cape Town appointed Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS) to manage the baboons. The monitors use paintball guns, tracking collars and bear bangers (flares emitting a loud noise) to keep them away from homes. Sight of the monitors alone acts as a deterrent; the baboons recognise the squad of yellow jacketed baboon shepherds and know they are armed. 

In the few months of HWS’s operation, there’s been a marked reduction of incursions into residential areas. Colin, who lives in Smitswinkel Bay, couldn’t speak highly enough of the HWS monitors “only once since HWS have been around have baboons got into our residential area, it was practically all the time before.”

A monitor, shepherding

A monitor, shepherding

I’d read an article stating the success of paintballing “is attributed to the apes not liking projectiles being hurled at them”. I didn’t think I needed to be an animal behaviourist to work that out and felt uneasy about the method. Over the course of a few hours I saw around 200 shots fired but never saw a baboon hit or with paint on its fur. I’d worried about a baboon getting shot in the eye. It’s clearly a horrible possibility but from what I saw a “hit” must be very rare, which makes sense. Baboons are clever and appear to have already learned the range of the paintball guns and keep that distance away. Even so, I followed the monitors as they successfully herded the baboons over a kilometer south, to where there’s no housing. As a means of limiting human / wildlife conflict it’s currently a success.

An evolutionary arms race

The only way to retain baboons on the peninsula appears to be progressively elaborate management techniques. Baboons and the monitors are in an evolutionary arms race. The paintball technique is working for now, but the baboons are likely to start to split up into smaller splinter troops, as a means of getting round the monitors. There are three monitors on duty with each of the eleven troops but three people won’t be able to handle a troop splitting into multiple smaller groups. There’s already a splinter group forming from the Kommetjie troop. 

I asked one monitor if he thought the paintballing would work in the long term. He didn’t, he said, the baboons would learn new skills. He told me that drones and radio controlled planes “buzzing” the baboons to scare them away from housing had been considered. I’m not sure whether it was a joke but wouldn’t be surprised if once the baboons work out how to beat the paintball shepherds that these new methods and others will be considered. It’s laudable how many people on the peninsula do not want to give up on finding a solution.

The baboons’ importance

I thought about why we’re doing this. Nationally baboons aren’t threatened. By comparison, there’s a subspecies of Samango monkey endemic to South Africa which the IUCN Red List lists as “Vulnerable” due to a population decline of over 30% in less than 30 years. The Samangos receive dramatically less attention and money and are arguably of higher conservation value. So the baboons aren’t getting this attention due to conservation value alone.

I think the real value of the baboons is as a reminder of the peninsula’s less developed past. In 1654 Jan van Riebeeck, the commander of the first Dutch settlement at the Cape, wrote about Table Valley’s then recently introduced sheep “[many are] carried away and devoured every day by leopards [and] lions.” Table Valley is now the city centre, the leopard and lion are long since gone. Baboons are the area’s last remaining local land mammal capable of gaining newspaper column inches. Tour operators have complained that HWS have been too successful; they can no longer count on finding baboons on the roads as they’ve been shepherded into the hills. On one level people find human wildlife interaction exciting.

As management techniques become more elaborate they're likely to become more expensive. There’s a point when the cost will become politically unacceptable, resulting in widespread property damage or the more likely scenario of the baboons being destroyed. To some people the baboons are a case of human wildlife / conflict, to others a tourist attraction. To me they’re an example of what I am looking at on my South African road trip. Human population and consumption growth is a fascinating topic gaining little attention but it is this growth which has caused every problem I've discussed above. We’ve already caused the demise of lion, leopard and many other species on the peninsula. If the baboons go the same way it would be another sad impact of our growth at the expense of all other species.