What was it like to study baboons in South Africa?
Here are some anecdotes from my time as a research assistant in Cape Town, South Africa.
Over the past few weeks, the alpha male of the baboon troop I follow has been dethroned. He had severe injuries on his face earlier in the month from a fight with another male, but recovered. Then yesterday morning at 4am, as reported by local residents, there was a huge fight between males, some of which took place on someone's roof. We didn't see the alpha male at all yesterday and another adult male started consorting with (following around and mating with) the alpha female. Today one of the baboon monitors (local guys employed to herd the baboons away from the roads and private property) found the alpha male separate from the troop. Both arms are bloody from gashes inflicted probably by other males' canines and he has a small head wound. I followed him, instead of the troop, for two hours today and he's mobile and eating, though he walks like a drunkard and nothing seems to be wrong with two of his legs so we're worried about the head wound. When the troop passed him at one point, the #2 ranking female stopped to groom him, which seemed promising. It's difficult to tell the severity of injuries with these animals because the males beat each other and the females up so frequently that they constantly seem to be recovering miraculously from horrible injuries (exemplified by the permanently broken jaw on the #2 female).
A juvenile chacma baboon embraces an infant on a cold morning:
The baboon troop sometimes explored and foraged in an abandoned prison near Tokai Pine Plantation:
Today, a small juvenile male baboon fell from a tree from a great height and sustained internal injuries. He lay on his stomach moaning and other members of the troop came up to nudge and groom him. I was designated as the member of the research team to stay behind while the rest went on with the troop. We only bring a vet in when it is a human-caused injury, so my job was basically to watch him to see if he miraculously recovered or if he died, and to keep other people in the area away from him. This happened next to a parking lot, a little tearoom and a picnic area, so on a normal day I would have had to fend off picnickers and hikers. However, last Thursday there was also a full film crew of about fifty people for a made-for-TV movie called "The Lost Future." The premise is that in a post-apocalyptic world man returns to cave man and ancient warrior ways.
Anyway, picture me standing about 3 meters from a slowly dying baboon. His breathing is labored. He makes pitiful grunting and moaning sounds. The troop has left. A concerned Capetonian 30-something from the movie set watches nearby and is getting very emotional about the dying baboon. The man alternates pensive silence with comments like "Can't you do something? I can't believe we can't call in a vet. I mean look at him." I explain yet again about the vet rule and assure him that if a vet were to come they would probably euthanize the baboon so at least this way we're seeing if it can recover. Suddenly, a burly man with a shaved head and neck tattoos, clad in a full warrior outfit comes over wielding a club. This actor looks menacing in his costume, but then proceeds to melt into a big baby and says dramatically "Ah shame! Ah shame!" as he walks by the little baboon . . . .
Since I arrived here at the end of January, there have been four (night) births in the baboon troop I follow, and one infant death. The mother of the infant who died appears unable to produce milk, so her infants tend to die within one week of birth. She carried the corpse around for two days and then let go of it (sometimes females carry dead infants around for two weeks, so I guess we were lucky in terms of the smell). She has since taken on the strange role of bully to other females and babysitter to large infants that are being rejected by their mothers because of weaning.
The troop of about 60 baboons that we follow tends to travel in a given day through several landscapes: pine forest, fynbos, horse farms, vineyards, fields, and a juvenile detention/youth-at-risk center. The baboons are the bane of the horse farmers', vineyard workers' and juvenile detention center employees' existences. A particular horse farmer shoots at them with a paint ball gun when they come onto her property. The vineyard workers, who are particularly touchy because it's almost time for harvesting, throw stones at the baboons and scream profanities at them -- the baboons are sneaky though and get in there to eat copious amounts of grapes anyway because some baboons distract the employees while others go in and raid. When the baboons reach the juvenile detention center buildings, they scamper along the roof and slip in through open windows.