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CapeNature has slated National Geographic’s Big Baboon House documentary as “shocking” and strongly condemned it for encouraging baboons to raid a house for food.
And the head of UCT’s Baboon Research Unit, Justin O’Riain, is furious that National Geographic has spliced into the television series sections of an interview with him, although he had told producers he would not be part of the “unethical” documentary.
The series, filmed in a modified house at the Hangklip Hotel near Pringle Bay, was shot in the style of Big Brother with hidden cameras. Windows and doors were left open to enable filming of primates raiding the well-stocked house. Locals in the area are trying to prevent baboons getting “food rewards” to stop them raiding.
Acting CapeNature CEO Kas Hamman said it “strongly condemns the behaviour displayed by the producers.
“We are disappointed that a reputable international wildlife conservation organisation such as National Geographic would even consider associating themselves with such a seemingly unethical documentary and distorted conservation message. It is unacceptable and quite shocking,” Hamman said.
Hamman was commenting on short clips from the series on the National Geographic website. In one scene, a person dressed as Santa Claus enters the house and leaves “gifts” of bread and bags of sweets, then pretends to sleep while the baboons come inside and tear open the “gifts”.
In another scene the film-makers put fruit under a basket with weights on it and fruit on top of a greased pole so the primates have a “choice between two challenges”.
The baboons have human voice-overs. As one tucks into a box of cereal, he says: “Delicious, and loaded with fibre.”
“CapeNature condemns the feeding of baboons and the deliberate staging of an environment to encourage raiding behaviour by baboons. Films like this make the baboon issue, which is already difficult to manage, even more difficult, and it does not contribute to conservation at all. It creates the public perception that it is okay to lure baboons into the house and feed them. This sort of thing can eventually lead to their destruction. It leads to unnatural behaviour, especially by the dominant males, and action then has to be taken against these males, such as euthanasing them. And that’s the pity of this,” Hamman said.
The producers had been given a permit by CapeNature to film the primates on the beach in their natural habitat at Hang-klip, part of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. They had not fed the animals in this scene nor had they violated any permit conditions.
However, no permit was needed to film the animals in the “Baboon House” as this was on private land – regarded by some as a curious loophole in the law.
`The raiding scenes are interspersed with “Baboon Britannica” containing the comments of two baboon specialists, one of which is O’Riain.
O’Riain said he had agreed to the interview, in which he spoke about baboon raiding, believing it would be used on its own. At that stage the producers, local company AquaVision, had not yet got the go-ahead to do the movie for National Geographic.
“A month later they contacted me and said they wanted a baboon expert to interpret their (baboons’) behaviour.
“I said no, on ethical grounds,” O’Riain said.
O’Riain was angry to find that sections of his interview has been spliced into the series, giving the impression he had taken part in the programme.
But Thandi Davids, head of marketing and sales for National Geographic Africa, said on Tuesday O’Riain had signed a release form allowing them to use the material.
Asked to comment on CapeNature’s view, Davids said the organisation had seen only the short clips.
“They should see the full episodes prior to passing comment. All we were doing was viewing baboon behaviour as it is, not baiting or setting it up. We shot it on set, designed as a normal house, and we did consult scientists.
“All permits we needed were granted to us.”
In an earlier statement, National Geographic said: “A South African production company in co-ordination with the Nat Geo Wild constructed a house on the outskirts of the town to observe the behaviour of free ranging baboons in and around houses with the purpose of better understanding how humans and baboons may better coexist.
“The baboons were not lured into the house but ultimately entered it of their own volition,” the channel said.
“Baboons were raiding homes and shops in the area before and during the production of the show, which is presented in the show, as are the townspeople’s reactions to the baboons.
“In addition to observing how baboons behave in order to acquire human food, several tests were devised to determine how baboons might be deterred.
“Tests included using electric fences and snakes, as well as fake snakes, to capitalise on baboons’ instinctual fear, to keep them out of homes and off of properties.
“Two scientists with expertise in baboon behaviour assisted with the design of the tests and appeared in the show.”