Cape of Primates – Don’t feed the chacma baboons!

The Farmer Who Dressed Up as His Wife

Of all the stories about baboons of the Western Cape, perhaps the most interesting is the one about the farmer who tried to trick a meddlesome troop by putting on his wife’s dress and a wig.

Baboons are notorious chauvinists. They are, says Professor Robert Sapolsky, “the textbook example of a highly aggressive male dominated hierarchical society.” What’s really interesting is that this sexist behavior isn’t just limited to the animals’ internal social interactions; they affect how the baboons react to humans, too.

When a troop of baboons sees a male human approach, they will sense a threat. Even young boys are treated with a measure of respect. But women are either ignored or even attacked by the larger males.

In the early 1900s, a Cape Town farmer who lived in the area between Muizenberg and Steenberg was harassed by a troop of baboons. One day, his daughter was attacked by a baboon, and his wife had to drag the girl behind closed doors to safety.

This was the final straw. The farmer decided to seek revenge. He loaded his gun and set off to destroy the alpha male of the offending troop. But every time the farmer spotted the baboons and moved into position, the animals ran away. His wife, on the other hand, remained soundly ignored.

There is a saying in South Africa: “n Boer maak ‘n plan.” [A farmer will always hatch an ingenious solution.] So the farmer put on his wife’s dress, hid his rifle in the folds, and approached the troop.

The baboons, to their credit, were not fooled. The moment the burly ‘woman’ produced a rifle, they ran away. But the fact that baboons are well aware of the differences between male and female humans remains a well-documented fact. And one which the farmer attempted to use to his advantage.

The baboons of Cape Point

There are five distinct troops of baboons at Cape Point:

  1. Cape Point
  2. Buffels Bay
  3. Kanonkop
  4. Klein Olifantsbosch
  5. Groot Olifansbosch

They range from between 14 to over 30 members per troop. The largest troop currently is the Kanonkop troop.

When an alpha male is challenged, this is done by a young social climber, usually from another troop (which keeps the gene pool diversified). Interestingly, at times the challenger is aided by males from the apha’s troop. These opportunists have been known to change allegiance according to who is winning: they may initially attack the alpha, but if they see that the challenger is going to lose, then they also turn against the challenger and begin to fight on the alpha’s side. An example of realpolitik in the wild, if you will.

So the alpha either defeats the challenger and mutineer(s) or he is defeated. In that case, a new alpha male emerges and he kills all the offspring of the previous alpha male. This may seem like an unnecessarily harsh or cruel behavior, but it is done to preserve the diversity of the gene pool, and keep the troops healthy in the long run.

The baboons of Cape Point are the only ones of their species that forage for seafood. They eat crabs from the tidal pools, bite off the top of limpet shells that attach themselves to rocks in order to get at the juicy flesh inside, and they feast on the millions of flea-like ‘beach hoppers’ that swarm under the rotting kelp on the shore.

But it is not only their diet which makes the baboons of Cape Point unique…

Don’t feed the baboons!

Unlike their closest suburban cousins in Kommetjie and the troops along the cliffs of False Bay, the Cape Point baboons have been protected since 1939. This has given them both tameness and confidence that has endeared them to visitors at the park.

Of course, an instinctive human reaction to the baboons is to want to interact with them. And the easiest way to interact with them is to feed them. But there are very good reasons why you shouldn’t.

There are the obvious reasons: that they might begin to see humans as a ready source of food; that it might disrupt their natural foraging habits and ability; that some human food might be harmful to baboons. These are all true. But there’s a more immediate threat that isn’t quite as apparent.

We know that a baboon troop is organized according to a very strict hierarchy, with a dominant alpha male at the top, and below him a gang of deferent younger males, and below them an internal hierarchy of females, and finally – at the very bottom – their offspring. (That is to say, the offspring of the dominant alpha, who is the only one allowed to mate with the females.)

Feeding and foraging is a daily ritual which is led by the alpha male. It is he who wakes first (baboons are notoriously late sleepers; each troop has a number of preferred sleeping places) and it is he who decides what time to set off on the day’s quest for food.

Baboon feeding is more or less an individual activity. But when a particularly rich source of food is encountered, then it is important that the alpha male eats first. Then the rest of the troop can tuck in, in order of seniority.

When humans come into contact with baboons, they usually want to feed the babies and docile females. That’s because these are usually the most accessible, the cutest, and least threatening. (It’s also because humans usually encounter entire baboon troops when they are engaged in social activities, like grooming or play.)

The main problem is that when the alpha male sees the males and young eating before him, he sees the entire strict hierarchy of the troop being subverted. He will feel the need to re-establish his dominance in the troop, either by challenging the humans or by punishing the insubordinate females and young – or both.

By feeding the females and their young first, humans are flipping the social hierarchy on its head. Often with tragic consequences as the alpha metes out harsh punishments on the transgressors.

While it may seem like an innocent mistake on a person’s part, with benefits for baby baboons and mothers, it is, in fact, a most heinous

So please: DON’T FEED THE BABOONS.

You’ve read the stories, now head to the reserve where you can:

See the baboons! But please take note:

  1. Remain in your vehicle
  2. Do not have food easily visible or displayed in or around your vehicle
  3. If you see the baboons fighting, do not intervene!

Listen to the story of the chacma baboons instead.