Baboon Research in Eastern Cape South Africa
by Sophie Collier from Shurlock Row
Thanks to the Waltham St Lawrence Village Charities Education Grant I have extra support in studying for my PhD. My PhD will determine how baboons and other primates modify their behaviour to cope with extreme conditions. There will eventually be a lot of writing, reviewing and re-writing of my findings but for now I am collecting behavioural data from Madison Troop, a wild-living troop of Chacma baboons resident to The Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
There are 58 baboons in total in Madison troop. It took the two of us (myself and my fellow researcher Chrissy) 8 months to identify every single troop member and each baboon is known individually and by name. Some are easy to identify, for example Indigo has a white patch on her cheek and Luna only has half a tail, but for many individuals we just had to wait until we recognised their faces.
We also need to be wary while we follow the baboons. Wildlife that is a dream to see while in a safari vehicle is still incredible but terrifying while on foot. There are dangerous animals roaming the reserve and the baboons have no concerns about leading us straight towards them. I’ve followed the troop down a ravine and found myself face-to-face with a white rhino, bumped into three buffalo while walking through thick scrub and got too close for comfort with a cape cobra following the baboons along the river. It's unlikely that the baboons are doing this on purpose but I'm starting to wonder...
Some baboon etiquette is also necessary while we follow the troop. Baboons have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being aggressive. Harvey, the dominant male, is particularly fearless and has been seen defending his troop from cheetah – and winning. To avoid the baboons perceiving us as a threat, we avoid prolonged eye contact with any of them and move slowly and calmly around the troop. Unlike many urban troops, the Madison Troop members have no idea that we might carry food and so have no reason to attack us. It is vital that they never learn that we carry food and we always hide when we eat our lunch.
While not dangerous to us, Madison troop are no angels. Any new object encountered is thoroughly investigated. There is another project on the reserve studying the resident vervet monkeys. One vervet scientist went to retrieve his (very expensive) camera trap which had last been seen securely tied to a tree but was found dangling from its ties and covered in teeth marks. The last photo taken on it was an incriminating close up of juvenile baboons Kingsley and Lombardi’s faces peering into the lens. I avoid taking anything into the field that I might accidentally drop because the baboons WILL find it and they will cheerfully wreck it.
Baboon behaviour is always entertaining to watch as their dramas unfold. Each day Willow is mobbed by troop members who all want to hold her new baby, anyone who upsets Kahlua will be beaten up by her mother Ziggy, and Kingsley and Lombardi will start a game of swim-chase in the river (if they aren’t too busy destroying expensive equipment). Baboons are a fascinating species to study and I’m very lucky to be able to spend every day with them. My thanks go again to the Trustees of the Waltham St. Lawrence Village Charities for being so supportive of this project.
Sophie and Harvey
Willow and Baby