Anthropologist slams baboon monitoring

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problem primates? A lone baboon spotted near the Two Oceans restaurant at Cape Point. US professor and primate expert Shirley Strum says baboons on the Cape Peninsula have become 'uncontrollable' because they were not deterred from approaching or feeding on human food. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Cape Town - A Kenya-based American expert on primates says Cape Peninsula baboons have become “uncontrollable” because of the “extreme position” of activists who have “thwarted” scientific solutions to the conflict between the apes and humans.

In an open letter to the Cape Times, Professor Shirley Strum, a biological anthropologist specialising in primate studies, slammed baboon monitoring practices.

She writes: “The baboons should have been aversively deterred from approaching and feeding on human food from the start and consistently since the first signs. How could anyone let a troop sleep on the roof of an apartment building? It is a joke to have monitors walking behind clapping hands at this point. I’m not even certain major deterrent efforts will be effective for many troops, but it is the only option now short of eliminating most or all of the baboons.”

She said activists who oppose killing baboons had “thwarted the only methods that might have prevented” baboons raiding homes and restaurants for food. Strum, professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, said after visiting troops around Cape Point and urban areas, she had found troops had taken baboon “ingenuity and adaptability to their logical extreme”.

She said: “Most have reached the point where they are uncontrollable either because they have become dominant to the people living in the area or to the monitors trying to control them, and/or the topography of some of the locations makes it extremely difficult to control them.”

Reacting to Strum’s comments, Jenni Trethowan, an activist from Baboon Matters, said: “It is deeply sad that Shirley witnessed the monitor programme at its lowest point, when the men themselves were demotivated and under-utilised, having been directed to work to unsuccessful strategies of ‘holding the line’ for the past three years. It is no wonder that having seen this she has no faith in the monitor programme – and perhaps the salient point… is how did the Baboon Conservation Authorities allow what should have been a star conservation and skills development project (to) erode so badly.”

She denied activists thwarted the “only” methods and said they have called for better management.

Strum said baboons in their relations with humans needed to know the boundaries and limits of acceptable behaviour.

“Appropriate behaviour is created not just by benefits but by threats about misbehaviour; these expectations need to be constantly reinforced.”

Strum said baboons have become motivated by the taste of “higher quality” and larger packages of human foods.

“I have tested and witnessed many control techniques in the last 40 years. They all point to the need to make the costs higher than the benefits for baboons,” Strum said.

City biodiversity manager Julia Wood agreed with Strum, saying some baboons in the Peninsula, especially males, have become dangerous.

“This is why the BCA (the city, CapeNature and SANParks) want to keep baboons out of urban areas and our management is aimed at this goal. One of the best methods the BCA now believes is the use of electric fences.”

The erection of these fences would have to go through a public process and might not be erected in all communities.

Wood said methods which activists have been against such as paintballs and bear bangers have been successful.

Strum was “scandalised by the publicity campaign mounted by the activists”.

“I care about baboons as much as or more than they do. But because I care, I would sacrifice some to save the whole if that is what it takes. By contrast, activists seem to only care about how the humans feel about baboons. The epitaph of these baboons will read: ‘Met an untimely end because activists could not face reality’.”

Wood said the BCA does remove dangerous males.

“If we want to conserve the baboons on the South Peninsula, the BCA has to make some unpopular decisions.

“There are also no natural predators on the Peninsula and very old males without teeth that can only live on human food,” Wood said.

Strum said the future of the Cape baboons is being endangered by the people shouting the loudest against the only appropriate methods.

“If deterrence was used successfully earlier, there would be no need to kill any baboons today.

“The only good outcome of these untoward attacks is that they stimulated the Baboon Research Unit to study what options remain.

“The BRU has used the best science in the service of conservation. They have thought outside of the box. They should be commended, not condemned.” - Cape Times

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