Nurene Jassiem-Marcus and Melanie Gosling
A NATIONAL Geographic television documentary in which baboons were filmed entering and eating in a Pringle Bay house to which they had been lured with food has sparked controversy among residents.
The primates were filmed with hidden cameras placed in a specially modified cottage, and are portrayed in the television series, Big Baboon House, as “archetypal reality show characters”.
The cottage is part of the Cape Hangklip Hotel.
The documentary has angered residents in the area, who say it is unacceptable for National Geographic to have lured the animals to the house as it has undermined years of effort to keep the primates out of houses.
The movie, which is being screened in the US, was made in Pringle Bay a year ago.
Anne-Marie Breytenbach, a member of the Pringle Bay Baboon Action Group, said yesterday: “What they did is completely unacceptable. To lure baboons with food is not only illegal, it also disrupts the peaceful cohabitation we’ve been trying to maintain between humans and baboons.”
Breytenbach has been living in Pringle Bay for 24 years and says there has been a steady increase in aggressive baboon activity in the past three months.
Rooi Els resident Jenny Stark wrote on the National Geographic blog: “I live in the village next to Pringle Bay and, over the past decade, have been involved in educating and encouraging residents in our villages to find ways to live in harmony with the baboons. It is a real challenge to keep them out of our homes and requires constant vigilance.
“One slip is enough to bring them back to our homes. What National Geographic has done in deliberately baiting baboons into a house in Pringle Bay has undermined years and years of effort on our part and that of the residents. I am astonished that National Geographic allows itself to be associated with such unethical practices.”
Nine cameras and five microphones were installed in the house to capture every move and sound made by the baboons, and one-way mirrors allowed camera crews to capture some scenes, undetected.
The cottage was fully furnished, with beds, toilets, flat screen televisions and fully stocked grocery cupboards and fridge. Some of the experiments conducted by National Geographic included suspending a fruit basket above a trampoline outside the house to lure baboons to the cottage.
Ruth Mattison of Rooi Els wrote on the blog, “I am outraged that a supposedly intelligent, informed group of people are endangering the lives of this baboon troop. Every time you feed a baboon and make it feel it can trust humans, you create a potentially dangerous situation – for the humans that need to co-exist with them and the baboons who need to remember how to forage in the wild for their food.”
Hangklip Hotel manager Henry Roux said he had “just got a call one day” from the film-makers who had said they wanted to film something “to entertain kids”.
“I haven’t seen the footage yet. They took hours and hours for a five-part series to see how humans can live with baboons. They said they wanted to make a Big Brother house which could be monitored all the time. We converted one to have a camera corridor and one-way windows,” Roux said.
He said the team had a baboon scientist “of the highest calibre”. Roux said the team had gradually made the house more difficult to get into by putting up burglar bars.
The development director of Big Baboon House, Jaco Botha, said on the series’ official blog: “My biggest thrill was the first time we filmed the baboons breaking into the Baboon House and so showed proof of concept: that we could study them in very close proximity without having any effect on their natural behaviour.”
The baboons have been given names and also “speak”. On the movie website executive producer Jon Kroll wrote that they had decided to give the baboons voices as they were trying to “develop the baboons as archetypal reality show characters” so it would “help to add dialogue”.
While he concedes adding baboon dialogue “stretched” the boundaries of a nature documentary, “we were dedicated to bending and sometimes breaking the rules throughout the creative process of the show”.
Meghan Gleason, digital media content producer for National Geographic Channels, wrote on the website that they had “undertaken a simian social experiment of a lifetime” to understand baboon behaviour “so we can learn how to keep them out of homes and coexist peacefully with their human counterparts … all while having a little fun along the way as we observe these baboons having free rein over a posh house”.
Asked to comment, behavioural ecologist Phil Richardson said while he had not seen the movie, it did sound “unethical from the baboons’ point of view and from a filming point of view. I am surprised National Geographic did it.”
Thandi Davids, National Geographic’s director for marketing and sales in Africa, said yesterday they had been filming a scientific project on baboon behaviour.
“We piggy-backed on the scientific study they were setting up,” Davids said, adding that National Geographic would supply a full comment today.