The enigmatic Chacma Baboon

The enigmatic Chacma Baboon

Afternoon siesta on a hellishly hot afternoon – in the tiniest patch of shade in Chobe…

When we are in the bush, there are some animals which we see with consistent regularity. Because they are so “common”, we often do ourselves the disservice of the “tick and move on” approach. In the process, one misses out on some of the most interesting behaviours and sightings available to us. Baboons are animals that often fall into this category. There are many scientific sources of information – but I find the most interesting information often comes from those on the ground. This article is a combination of my own observations / knowledge, scientific resources and then largely from a friend of mine who has worked with these animals for decades. As with any animal, behaviour may differ between animals from one region to another – these accounts are primarily from baboon behaviour within the fynbos region. 

The Chacma baboon is the dominant baboon species in southern Africa. The word “chacma” is derived from the Khoikhoi name for baboon i.e. choachamma or choa kamma. Their scientific name “Papio ursinus” is derived from the French words “papion” (baboon) and “ursinus” (bear-like). These animals are the largest members of the monkey family – fully grown adult males can stand 1.5 meters tall and weigh up to 30kg, with the females being half the size. They can live up to 45 years – although if captive, life expectancy can increase somewhat.

A youngster at play – which is really learning how to climb trees.

A typical group will have five or six different “homes” (a cliff, a cave, an overhang or a large tree) to which they will return to after foraging. They always return to the vicinity of their home at dusk, playing around until the Alpha male “calls it”, and then they are absolutely quiet unless disturbed. Baboons have three senses on which they primarily rely – sight, hearing and smell. When the dark of the night closes in, they have lost one of those primary senses, and then need to be absolutely silent to enhance the remaining two. Survival in the wild is not child’s play…

Baboons are the ultimate “eco-friendly” gatherers, innately practicing sustainable utilisation. They will forage over an area approximately 100m wide, and about 5km long (area is dependent on how rich in food resources a particular area is – so distance can vary). Let’s call this their “daily feeding range”. They are very selective feeders, and so each day a new area is chosen as their required resources are now depleted from the previous day’s foraging. This allows for the regeneration of the food sources – sometimes over a period as long as a year. Hence the five or six ‘homes’. This is the scenario in a completely natural environment. It is for these reasons that they cannot simply survive on one koppie indefinitely. This is one of the primary reasons for their conflict with humans, particularly in the Western Cape. They have run out of space, because the land that they have foraged for aeons is now occupied by humans. They are also known to go down to the beaches to forage (perhaps partly for the salt supplies as well) – but these areas are also now no longer available to them. If they were nocturnal animals, they would perhaps have had more chance, but they aren’t, and the conflict escalates daily – with the baboons permanently on the losing side. Should large food resources be consistently available e.g. next to a rubbish dump, they will stay in one place until that resource is depleted. This is also the case where a sublime new take-away joint is provided, like a ripe and ready vineyard, or a fresh field of young mielies. The result of this is … war. Whilst it is completely natural behaviour on the part of a baboon, it is obviously hugely detrimental to a farmer. 

Grooming is both pleasurable and a way of cementing social ties.

Their water supplies have also been cut off – a statement which is self-explanatory. A baboon’s behaviour around water is also fascinating. There are many Facebook clips of baboons swimming. You will notice that you only ever see them swimming in clear water where they can see the bottom of the pool / rockpool. This is once again attributable to instinctual survivor behaviour. They will NOT swim in dirty water, because in Africa that may well hide a crocodile. Going back to their senses, dirty water removes both sight and hearing – possibly smell as well. Waterholes and dams are often located in such a way that there is very little cover on the way down to the water – which poses another risk to these incredibly intelligent animals, making them hyperaware in this environment. 

Baboons have a security system that rivals that of any other wild animal. There are usually between six and eight ‘askaris’ (a term usually associated with elephants, but useful here), who are permanently moving approximately 300m in front of the troop. They assume an elevated position (in a high tree or on a large rock) to keep an eye out for the troop. If, somehow, a leopard (or another threat) manages to get past them and into the troop undetected, these askaris are actually ‘beaten up’ / disciplined for dereliction of duty! Another more amusing source of discipline is when young males display in front of females. The alpha male of a troop has, on certain occasions, a very specific, stiff-legged walk – similar to that exhibited just before two dogs fight. If a teenage baboon imitates this walk (often in front of females), they also get ‘disciplined’.

Youngsters grow up in groups, learning and playing together all the way. They even form creches, which have babysitters!

They have an incredibly complex social structure, which is too complicated to cover in a short article. But, for me, some of the most interesting behaviour revolves around the babies. When there is a change in leadership in the troop, the new alpha male will attempt to kill the babies in order to bring the females back into oestrous as soon as possible, thereby ensuring that HIS genes are used to continue the line. In this situation, the females will band together and fight the male to prevent him from killing the babies. Baboon mothers are besotted with babies, even stealing babies from each other. They will feed each other’s babies, and if an orphan is introduced to the troop, a “dry” mother will start producing milk within a week to feed the baby. An infant in distress has a distinctive cry with a very specific pitch, which creates havoc in a troop. Baboon mothers will do anything to get to the baby in distress, even crossing busy tar roads without consideration to traffic in their urgency to reach the distressed youngster – an extremely rare occurrence in these otherwise circumspect, intelligent and careful animals’ behaviour. 

They, together with zebra, are often found foraging amongst impala. They use the impala as an early warning system – thus allowing themselves the luxury of being able to focus on their foraging more than would be possible if they were on their own as a troop. Chacma baboons are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on a wide array of items. They are able to adapt their diet relative to what is available. Their preferences are for bulbs, shoots, roots, seeds, fruit, fungi and lichen. Invertebrates, small vertebrates and seashore life also feature when available. They have even been known to hunt baby or young female antelope – but this is more the exception than the rule.

“Get back here – I’m not finished yet!” An adult inspects a youngster’s foot.

Another little-known fact is that baboons inadvertently start fires. If they are foraging on steep slopes or on the side of a cliff, rocks that have been turned over in search of food can roll down, hitting other rocks, sparking and starting a fire. Beyond first-hand observation of this by my friend, this situation is often referenced in scientific papers on the causes of fires. 

Baboons are incredibly strong. A feature of the males’ jaws are their formidable canine teeth. At a length of about 5cm (2”), they are longer than those of a lion. These razor-sharp canine teeth make these animals a worthy opponent. Baboons and leopards are arch enemies, and in a fight a big male baboon can easily kill an adult leopard. So always keep your distance. I am regularly appalled at humans “chasing” baboons – they are taking an inordinately stupid risk!

The largest threat to baboons is loss of habitat and the resultant conflict with humans. 

There is so much one can write about these animals – enough to fill a book. But for now, this is about all the limit of one short article will allow. If these animals interest you, take some time to read up on them. They are completely fascinating and most human-like.

#baboon #chacmababoon #capebaboon

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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