Throughout South Africa and much of the world, baboons are considered aggressive, menacing pests. They are frequently shot on site, intentionally hit by cars or electrocuted. Their strange and, to many, ugly appearance has only contributed to their bad reputation.
As baboons lose their habitats and are forced to search for their food in cities, more and more killings take place. Environmentalists have neglected to combat this problem and tourists have been taught by local guides to fear these creatures.
After working with orphaned baboons in Tzaneen, South Africa last summer, I found that simply spending time with the animals for which we have preconceived notions of barbarism and mistrust shows us something important: baboons are incredible animals who can love, feel pain and live in communities. They deserve our consideration and protection.
Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Tzaneen was started to help the orphaned baboons left behind by the ongoing habitat depletion and baboon killings. Riverside is now home to nearly 600 monkeys and is run by a few hired workers and many volunteers. I was lucky enough to be among them.
All of the work at Riverside focuses on one goal: the successful rehabilitation and release of orphaned and injured animals back into the wild. Though seemingly simple, the survival of reintroduced animals is dependent on a highly refined process committed to proven methodology and intellectual engagement. This method seeks to ensure that the troop of baboons ultimately coalesces, breaks reliance on people, and promotes species interdependence.
During my time at Riverside, several orphaned baboons came in: Cayman, Julian, Dobby and Maya. Like many other monkeys there, they had been found injured on the side of the road, kept as pets, or turned in by the people who had killed their parents.
Maya, whose parents were shot, had been chewed up by a dog and was at the point of starvation when a kindhearted woman discovered her. With scars running up her back and right arm, Maya did not do a lot to dispel notions that baboons are not all that attractive, but I loved her right away.
After getting stitched up and receiving a surgically implanted micro chip, Maya—then just a couple of months old—began the first stage on the long road to release: around the clock, “on-demand bottle care.” Maya would need to be carried around by volunteers who acted as her mother and nursed her back to health. In order to prevent Maya from becoming too attached to any particular volunteer, shifts were taken with as many volunteers as possible.
After a month of waking people up all night and stealing my peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at lunchtime, Maya was ready for the next big step: to be introduced to the other 26 orphaned babies.
Baboons are extremely family oriented, and have an innate tendency toward establishing close personal relationships. Those in the current troop have learned how to survive, gather food collectively and perhaps most importantly, maintain the peace.
These personal relationships were abundantly evident even among the babies, who were deeply reliant upon their friends for comfort. For example, when the one-year-old baby George (named after the Prince who shares his birthday) needed stitches in his foot, his best friend Loopa was taken to the clinic to keep him company. George, who had been extremely agitated when taken to the clinic, was so happy to see Loopa that he stopped whining and immediately relaxed.
This interdependency extends beyond individual relationships too. Cold winter nights bring all monkeys in the troop together quite literally. Each baboon grabs on to the back of another, so that what was once 26 babies becomes, for about eight hours a night, one giant spoon. Because they are so family oriented, the monkeys are hesitant to take on strangers and Maya’s introduction took several days.
Maya will spend her “childhood” with these 26 other baboons, who will one day be part of her troop in the wild. While the other babies did not seem keen on sharing their home with a new baboon, within three days she was one of them. Although they were only about one-year-olds themselves, Jeroux and Mordechai, the two largest male babies, insisted on carrying Maya everywhere for her protection.
Upon any sign of danger, which was indicated by an alarm call, the babies formed a “mob” all around Maya. When Cayman, who is somewhat smaller than Maya, arrived later in the summer, Maya was among the many who helped to protect him when the alarm went off.
When Maya is old enough, she will be moved to the “middle” enclosure, a larger cage for “teenage” baboons of about 1-2 years old. There, her interaction with humans will be decreased and she will be exposed to an environment that more closely resembles the wild.
Finally, at about two years old, she will begin the process of being introduced to the “main camp,” which currently consists of about 80 adult baboons—the troop with whom she will spend the rest of her life in the wild.
The introduction into the main camp takes careful planning. Maya will spend time in an introductory enclosure, which borders the main camp so that the baboons can interact and get to know each other through the fence through grooming and greeting actions (what we call lip-smacking and butt scratches).
The troop must spend at least a year together in captivity without human contact before it is ready to be introduced into the wild in order to make sure that they can fully coalesce into a functioning troop with the deep, lasting relationships that will ensure success in the wild. After the troop has sufficient time to fuse, the final step in Maya’s journey is the release.
The site of the release must be carefully picked to guarantee that the habitat is stable, has a good water source, contains similar fauna, and is far from human civilization. Scared by their new surroundings, they could disperse and, in the absence of troop support, die. In order to ensure that they become comfortable with their new surroundings an enclosure is built at the release site. They will remain in this enclosure for two weeks, ensuring that they will not disperse upon their freedom. After two weeks, the electric fence is turned off and bridges are built along the exterior.
It is likely that Maya, who will be about two years old when the release occurs, will be among those to take the first steps of freedom. The troop will be monitored actively for six months, and later through the use of microchips to evaluate and improve upon the methodology. Riverside currently has a 92 percent three-year survival rate. Maya has a good chance.
However, Maya should have never been at Riverside in the first place. She should have never been orphaned. Her habitat should have never been depleted. The animosity and mistrust that resulted in her parents being shot was misplaced. Spending the last three months with baboons has taught me that really getting to know animals can show us things we would have never suspected. Baboons have a language of more than 140 distinct sounds and are capable of complex abstract thoughts and emotions.
But even more important than their intellectual abilities is their capability to feel pain, happiness and love, just like we do. We need to think about how we can best help others, especially primates and other animals. Wildlife rehabilitation and baboon rehabilitation in particular, is grossly underfunded and understaffed. These really are incredible animals, and their conservation, both in rehabilitation and education, needs to be a priority.