Baboons are a ubiquitous feature of most African parks. But so often we look beyond rather than at them. This is an oversight, says Mike Unwin, since few other animals offer as much action and intrigue as these primates
It’s a familiar scene. The gang spreads out on the mid-morning quest for food. Some comb the ground as though searching for loose change; others comb through their companions’ fur with nimble, nit-picking fingers. Mothers clasp babies, youngsters dangle from overhead branches and one big guy perches on a termite mound, elbows on knees, surveying his surroundings. Suddenly, the serene ambience is shattered by a shrieking dispute between a couple of adolescents who tear through the troop, drawing irritated rebukes. Bystanders lope away disdainfully. Peace returns — for now.
Baboon society often appears to mirror our own. Indeed, scientists consider that it is in many ways analogous to that of early hominids, with baboons being — like our ancestors — large, omnivorous, terrestrial, sociable primates that live primarily in African savannahs. Despite this, however, we seldom have a good word to say about them. It is almost as though their behaviour is just too close to home.
Baboons are monkeys. To be precise, they are Old World monkeys of the genus Papio and, after the great apes and us, the largest primates in Africa. Most scientists recognise five species. The gelada of Ethiopia, although sometimes called a baboon, belongs to a separate genus, as do the baboon-like mandrill and drill of West Africa.
Whatever the species, baboons are distinguished from other monkeys by their long, dog-like muzzle, deep-set eyes and distinct kink in the tail, which they generally carry in an inverted ‘U’ shape. Size varies, with male chacma baboons weighing up to 50kg (the same as a chimpanzee) but Guinea baboons only reaching half this. All show pronounced sexual dimorphism: mature males are twice the size of females and also sport a cape or neck ruff, which, combined with their massive canine teeth, makes them look quite intimidating. Infants are darker and have pink faces.
Baboons live in troops that vary in size from fewer than 30 to more than 150 individuals. Their society is highly structured, and much of their time is spent negotiating its politics. Refined communication skills, including numerous vocalisations and facial expressions, allow remarkably close cooperation: working together, baboons can quickly turn the tables on a leopard, their most feared predator. A female gives birth at any time of year. The infant at first clings to her chest but is riding on her back by six weeks. Youngsters reach sexual maturity at five to eight years, at which point males leave in search of a new troop.
These resourceful primates can adapt to almost any habitat, as long as it offers daily drinking water and secure roosts (usually either on cliff faces or in tall trees). They prefer open terrain and, although agile tree climbers, spend most of their time on the ground. Their diet takes in anything from seedpods to birds’ eggs, and they will kill and eat animals as large as hares or newborn antelope (pictured right). Even flamingos sometimes make the menu.
The daily routine seldom varies. Each new day is greeted with yells and shrieks as the troops return to the ground, thudding down from the branches like big hairy fruit. They then head out to the day’s feeding grounds, their movements usually directed by dominant females. After a midday break, they will feed again in the afternoon before returning to their roost by sunset. A typical day’s foraging may take them ten kilometres.
Baboons occur right across sub-Saharan Africa and are completely absent only from desert, rainforest and the highest mountains. Widespread persecution, however, ensures that their numbers are highest in reserves, where people do not pose a threat and they have learnt to adapt to our presence.
Did you know?
A baboon spends long periods sitting on its backside. Its bare buttocks are protected by patches of hardened, leathery skin, known as ischial callosities. When females are on heat, these flush red to signal sexual availability. | Like all monkeys of the Cercopithecine (‘cheek-pouch’) family, baboons have specialised sacs on the inside of their cheeks in which they can store food while foraging.
Baboons are easy to find in most game reserves and protected areas. Check out rocky kopjies and cliffs, and stretches of riverine forest with large fruiting trees. They often frequent camps and picnic areas, where they can find scraps.
Most major conservation areas harbour plenty of baboons. Hotspots include South Africa’s Kruger Park; Botswana’s Chobe and Okavango; Zimbabwe’s Hwange, Victoria Falls and Zambezi Valley; Zambia’s Luangwa Valley; Kenya’s Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru; and Tanzania’s Serengeti and Lake Manyara. Outside protected areas, look out for them in mountainous terrain, such as South Africa’s Drakensberg. One notoriously bold population inhabits South Africa’s Cape Peninsula.
Wherever baboons occur, they leave characteristic calling cards. Be alert to the following:
1 Turned stones
In rocky country, a foraging troop may turn over stones across a large area in their search for scorpions and other food.
Baboon country is liberally scattered with their droppings, which are often upended and appear human-like. Baboons may deliberately defecate or urinate on intruders (including human ones) from an overhead branch.
In areas where baboons are present but shy, a sentry’s distinctive “Wahoo!” bark will reveal that you have been spotted. Scan the skyline and you may see the troop watching you.
Baboon tracks show thumbs, like a human hand; the back feet are longer and narrower than the front.