OPINION | Bridging the divide on how to manage baboons

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

As the management of human-wildlife conflict in Cape Town becomes increasingly complex, it is also having a social impact, writes Dian Spear.

Conservation management is often controversial in the public view.

Inherent in its complex nature, the management of human-wildlife conflict involves a multitude of social challenges.

Most often, these challenges are because of the damage wildlife inflicts on humans and their property. However, regulations that are intended to protect wildlife as well as human interests and property, can also have social impact. 

In Cape Town, recent baboon management actions are causing much distress for some residents, and concerned groups are exhibiting a lack of trust in the management of their beloved baboons.

Human-wildlife interactions can elicit intense emotional experiences, which can be negative, such as fear, or positive, such as excitement and pleasure.

In addition, humans can become emotionally attached to animals.

The physical and behavioural similarities between humans and baboons mean that some people feel a great deal of empathy for them.

Transfer of baboon

Currently, in Cape Town, a group of concerned citizens are saddened, frustrated and angry about the recent transfer of a baboon that has been reported to be raiding and showing dispersing behaviour.

Emotion is a significant driver of decision-making, and these concerned citizens are acting on their emotions by planning protests and court action. Such heated emotions can cause social fragmentation, and a breakdown of public trust in conservation managers can lead the public to take action themselves.

Although the management decision to transfer the baboon is within the bounds of the current baboon management guidelines developed by the Baboon Technical Team, achieving the long-term goals of conserving the baboon populations in Cape Town and reducing damage to humans and their properties requires the support of the residents of the city.

READ | Opinion: Managing baboons on the urban edge of Kommetjie

The diversity of residents in the city brings a diversity of perceptions of baboons and how they should be managed. These perceptions are also likely to be closely linked to ethical attitudes towards baboons and are likely to be driven by a number of factors, including values, social norms, beliefs, culture, past experiences, knowledge of baboon ecology, degree of attachment to individual baboons and demographic and socioeconomic factors.

There can also be gendered differences in perceptions, with an ethic of justice, such as rules about actions being wrong or right, being more common in men and an ethic of care, which includes preserving relationships, being more common in women.

For baboon management, people wanting baboons in their neighbourhood is a challenge because of the risks of having baboons in human-occupied space, which include short- and long-term risks to the baboons themselves.

Perceptions of conservation outcomes, social impacts and good governance, which includes the decision-making process, can influence levels of public support for conservation management, making it imperative that conservation managers implement good governance and manage social impacts to gain support from the public.

In the case of baboons in Cape Town, the social impacts of baboon management are much more varied and complex than the concerns of the dominant voices in the media and include extensive damage to property and attacks on humans.

Because of the importance of these factors in influencing conservation, perceptions of the social impacts of conservation, conservation outcomes, governance and management are increasingly being monitored globally.

In addition, conflict management processes are increasingly being used to resolve conflicts between actors with conflicting views on conservation management. Such participatory processes have particular characteristics, including acknowledging a shared problem, working towards specific shared objectives, giving participants an equal voice, raising awareness of trade-offs, providing a transparent evidence base, building relationships and promoting active listening.

READ | Opinion: Anthropomorphism and public perception of baboon mismanagement

The situation surrounding the management of baboons in Cape Town seems stuck and in need of change.

However, the only way that change can happen is by these different groups working together.

A participatory process, such as transformative scenario planning, may be a useful way forward. This process involves convening a diverse group of affected stakeholders representing all sides of the problem.

It aims to determine a shared understanding of what is happening in the problematic system, which in this case includes baboon ecology, human-baboon conflict, attachment to individual baboons, what may happen in the future and which actions can achieve positive outcomes.

Increasing complexity

With the likelihood of increasing complexity in the management of human-wildlife conflict in Cape Town, it is as important now as ever to consider perceptions of conservation outcomes, social impacts and governance, and incorporate the role of community perceptions more integrally into conservation management.

The public is likely to evaluate governance based on factors such as communication, collaboration, conflict management, consultation, legitimacy, participation, recognition, the rule of law, transparency and trust.

If measures can be taken to improve some of these factors, such as running a communication campaign on baboon ecology and human-baboon conflict and organising participatory processes, it can go a long way towards building a bridge between the divide of the divergent perspectives in the city.

Recognising that activities, such as participatory processes, are costly in time and money, and some perceptions run deep, some win-win solutions are still likely to be found through an appropriately facilitated process between the parties concerned.

- Dr Dian Spear is an independent conservation social scientist and science communicator with a PhD from Stellenbosch University. She writes in her personal capacity.

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