Cape baboons enter cellphone age


Peninsula baboons regularly make headlines on their travels through Caoe Town's southern suburbs, but now cellphone technology is being used to pinpoint their exact location.

Researchers simply write a text message "where is baboon" on their cellphones and the exact co-ordinates of the primates who have been fitted with GPS collars will come up.

Alternatively, they can access the primates' movements by logging on to the internet and taking the data off a central server to which all the GPS points are sent automatically.

Justin O'Riain, a social mammal expert at the University of Cape Town, said loads of useful data had been collected from a baboon which had been collared for a few months.

Unfortunately that baboon died but five other male baboons are to be fitted with the collars to enable researchers to study exactly what their movements are.

O'Riain said the reason male baboons were being collared was that they were most vulnerable because they had to leave their troops and link up with new ones.

This took the male baboons on journeys often paved with incredible danger.

There are horror stories of baboons being shot by intolerant residents oblivious to the fact that they have encroached on the primates' natural habitat.

The baboons also fall victim to dogs or are knocked over by cars.

"Every male baboon born has to leave its troop to avoid inbreeding because they won't engage in incest. So they have to disperse," O'Riain explains.

Because males are most at risk, O'Riain says, many troops have a gender ratio strongly skewed in favour of females.

The impact of this on the Peninsula's baboon population will form part of a study conducted by UCT's zoology department and local baboon experts David Gaynor and Ruth Kansky.

Also under the research spotlight will be the affect of junk food on their health, much of which is pilfered in cunning raids on their human neighbours.

"In Betty's Bay they have an open dumpster on the outskirts of town and the baboons have learnt which days are most profitable for raiding it."

O'Riain said he had even spotted one positively obese male.

"I was shocked at his state. He was idly hanging round the dumpster like a trashy teenager at a fast food joint," he said.

O'Riain said access to refined, carbohydrate-rich foods instead of their usual nutritious vegetable and fibre-rich diet could prompt exactly the type of illnesses that humans suffered from, such as high cholesterol, blood sugar problems and a prevalence for diabetes.

"It's going to be a very interesting mix of results," O'Riain said of the junk-food investigation.


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