OPINION | Anthropomorphism and public perception of baboon mismanagement

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Dr Andrew King writes on why it was necessary to relocate Kataza to Tokai, despite the public outcry. 


Chacma baboons live throughout Southern Africa in large social groups, called troops.

Females stay in the troop in which they are born their entire lives. Males in contrast leave their birth (natal) troop on reaching adulthood and attempt to join a new troop.

When young adult males leave (or ‘disperse’) and encounter a new troop, they can challenge the resident dominant male. If successful, they may also kill infants in the troop. Not very nice is it?

When people first learn about infanticide by male baboons (or by lions or dolphins – yes, dolphins!) their response is that infanticide is morally undesirable – a correct response! But people may also think that infanticide should not exist (the moralistic fallacy) or that everything in nature is good (the naturalistic fallacy).

Such fallacies lead to incorrect assumptions about the function of animal behaviour. For instance, people might conclude that infanticidal males are pathological.

In fact, infanticidal males are adopting a clever evolutionary strategy.

With no infant to care for, the infant’s mother stops lactation and becomes ready to conceive. Infanticidal males are therefore able to mate sooner and father more offspring – they have higher reproductive success. We can explain the behaviour. We don’t have to like it.

Cape Peninsula baboons

On the Cape Peninsula, chacma baboons move through residential areas and farmland foraging on high-calorie human derived foods (e.g. food waste, crops).

This behaviour is known as ‘raiding’, and is undesirable because the baboons damage property and crops.

Raiding baboons experience high risks (e.g. from cars, dogs), but continue to raid because it is beneficial to do so. Raiding baboons have more offspring – they have higher reproductive success. We can explain the behaviour. We don’t have to like it.

To prevent raiding behaviour, The City of Cape Town allocates R13 million to baboon management and employs field rangers with paintball markers that ‘herd’ baboons away from the urban edge.

The field rangers are largely successful in reducing the time baboons spend in urban spaces and we recently found that rangers kept adult males in the Constantia area out of town for 98% of the day.

However, things get tricky for the field rangers if some baboons start breaking away from the main troop and entering urban space. Rangers cannot be in two places at once, and to manage both the main troop and the new ‘splinter’ troop effectively doubles resources and costs.

 
male baboon SK11
Male baboon SK11. (Photo: Phil Richarson/Human Wildlife Solutions.)

This year, baboon management reported a young adult male in Kommetjie (named SK11, i.e. male number 11, born in Slangkop troop) forming a splinter with some of the troop’s females and frequently moving into urban areas. To solve the ‘splinter problem’, it was decided SK11 should be relocated.

Why move SK11?

Male baboons of his age should be looking to disperse from their natal troop, and may migrate between several troops throughout their lives.

SK11 had not yet made a move, but male dispersal on the Cape Peninsula is likely disrupted (both the timing and direction) due to habitat fragmentation, and the way the baboon space-use is managed by field rangers.

Moving SK11 to a different area – preferably one which has high baboon density and large troop sizes – is therefore a sensible decision. It assists SK11’s dispersal and results in the splinter females returning to the main troop.

SK11’s destination was Tokai, 20km north of Kommetjie where several large troops of baboons range. Tokai is a residential suburb positioned next to a forest that sits at the foothills of the Table Mountain National Park.

#bringkatazaback

In late August 2020, baboon management trapped, anaesthetised, tagged, collared (to provide location information) and relocated SK11 to Tokai. Social media was flooded with images of SK11 alone in suburbia with the hashtag ‘#bringkatazaback’.

“Kataza” is the name given to SK11 by Kommetjie residents.

The public demanded that Kataza go back to Kommetjie – away from the males in Tokai with whom he may fight, and returned to his ‘family’ because they felt he was lost and stressed.

It is true that Kataza won’t have known where he was when moved, so he is ‘lost’. But, chacma baboons regularly travel the distance he was moved (20km) in a single day, and male baboon dispersal involves considerable time spent alone – ranging from a few hours to many months. Dispersing males use this time to explore their environment, interacting with neighbouring troops and other males.

Kommetjie residents also say Kataza had offspring in his natal troop; baboon management say he didn’t.

It is likely the infants residents saw Kataza interacting with in Kommetjie were his nieces and nephews.

However, it is possible he fathered offspring in his natal troop. Some males do reproduce in their natal troop before dispersing, but this type of inbreeding leads to higher levels of infant death – which would be another valid reason for moving Kataza.

What next?

SK11 is an adult male chacma baboon that has now left his natal troop. Being a dispersing male is what he is hard-wired to do. The chances of SK11 gaining access to a new troop and the mating opportunities it brings will be determined, in the main, by his physical condition and fighting prowess.

Kataza may become an alpha male, perhaps even kill infants, and then father offspring of his own.

He may also spend his time as a lower-ranked male in a new troop with some chance of fathering offspring. Both outcomes would be considered a management success.

But Kataza could end up wandering suburbia for months.

Kataza would experience increased mortality risks and missed reproductive opportunities (just like the majority of dispersing male baboons). And baboon management don’t want lone males wandering suburbia – they create a similar management challenge to the splinter troops Kataza’s relocation attempted to prevent.

The challenge

Baboons are large, social, intelligent, and charismatic primates that can be individually identified. Without a full understanding of their biology, anthropomorphism leads people to make false assumptions about what is ‘good’ for baboons.

When people hear about infanticide by baboons they are outraged.

Once they learn the reason for the behaviour, they still may not like it, but they better understand it.

When people heard about the relocation of Kataza they were outraged.

My hope is that after reading this article, they still may not like it, but they may better understand it.

- Dr Andrew King is an Associate Professor at Swansea University in the United Kingdom specialising in animal behaviour. He has more than 15 years of experience studying wild baboon populations in Namibia and South Africa, and has published widely on baboon behavioural ecology and baboon-human interactions.

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