Cape Town - An end to Cape Town’s on-going human-baboon conflict may soon be in sight.
For years troops of wild chacma or Cape baboons have been raiding the homes, rubbish bins and vehicles of residents in search of “human” food to sustain their ever-growing troop numbers.
Since 2009 the authorities have embarked on numerous programmes to curb the threat of the baboon raids, with little success.
Now a new baboon management strategy, implemented by the UK’s Swansea University, has earned the council an A+ from one of its biggest critics.
Justin O’Riain, director at the Institute for Communities and Wildlife of Africa, has for years condemned the council’s attempts to control the baboons’ behavioural and migratory patterns.
“The only reason they come into town is for the same reason we go to the corner store, it’s for that fix,” he said.
However, O’Riain believes that Swansea’s new collar programme is vastly more sophisticated than the measures scientists at UCT and Cape Nature initially implemented in 2009.
“Under current management baboons are being kept out of urban areas 98% of the time,” O’Riain said.
A team of scientists from Swansea University designed and manufactured the new primate collars to precisely track baboons and document their behaviour during raids.
Led by Gaelle Fehlmann, a PhD student at Swansea University, the team built the collars out of soft leather attached to a 3D-printed VHF (very high frequency) box.
Compared to previous collars which provided only periodic updates of the baboons’ locations and rough estimates of whether they were foraging or resting, the new collar is aligned to collate collar data with field observations of the baboons – to build an algorithm that can tell every minute whether the baboons were grooming, feeding, resting or moving.
The installation of the collars is done by a vet, who anaesthetises the baboons during the fitments, and then releases them into the wild. The device is designed to fall off after a couple of months. O’Riain said the baboons do not initially love their new “jewellery’, but after two days, the data shows they behave as if it doesn’t exist.
A 1998 World Wildlife Fund study classified Cape Town’s baboons as an endangered species, a result of a city council-led mass killing of baboon troops that had been marooned on Table Mountain.
At the time, an NGO called Baboon Matters chased the animals out of the suburbs. It also conducted walking tours with baboons for tourists, which it maintains were for educational purposes only, and ended in 2011 because the troops they walked with changed locations.
O’Riain said the first study conducted with tracking collars in 2009 found that some baboons were sleeping on the hot air vents of a Camps Bay Bakery roof, dining on biscuit scraps in the morning and joining the NGO on walking tours as they were being “chased out”.
“How do you teach baboons to be tolerant of people (through walking tours) and also keep them from poor people?” O’Riain asked.
“The baboons steal their food. It’s unacceptable.”
The new study has confirmed methods already supported by other statistics, including the fact that retributive killings – instances where humans kill baboons after they’re fed up with break-ins – fell from 67% of baboon deaths in the mid to late 2000s, to 11% in 2015.
The results not only showed the new methods were working, but also pointed to areas of improvement.
“You have more baboons in better welfare and that’s one of the great indications of success,” O’Riain said.
But not everyone agrees this marks success. Jenni Trethowan, president of Baboon Matters, is critical of a key management practice – killing “problem” baboons.
In 2010 Cape Town began killing baboons that repeatedly raided homes – in an effort to conserve resources and prevent them from teaching others in their troops to do the same.
Trethowan said these killings disrupt baboons’ social structure. She pointed to the Misty Cliffs troops, where every single male baboon was killed – there were only three females left.
“Now you can imagine those last three baboons will also be killed and we can call that a management success,” Trethowan said.
O’Riain said the Misty Cliffs baboons weren’t an actual troop, but a splinter group solely comprised of raiding baboons that were sapping an inordinate amount of management resources.
Cape Town considers the impact on social groups before euthanasing and males dying is normal, he said. Generally, predators like jackals do it, but here humans killed off the last predators ages ago.
He said the numbers bear this out, and as cities struggle with how to manage urban wildlife – badgers in Paris, boars in Berlin, Black Bears in New York – municipalities can borrow Cape Town’s methods, and use their collars to see if they work.
“The rest of the world can learn from Cape Town,” O’Riain said.