Having moved to the Cape Peninsula some years ago, we regularly get visitors from Europe who stay with us and wonder at the local wildlife. Whales, penguins, ostriches and….baboons! Driving along the coastal road past Simon’s Town and on to Cape Point, it is almost impossible not to encounter the Peninsula’s infamous Chacma baboons. In particular the Smitswinkel troop are often to be found lounging across the road just as tourists enter the park and it is not unusual to see cars pulled over to observe the grooming, playing and of course feeding rituals.
Many tourists love to pass unwanted food on to the baboons. Look at the expectant faces and the unwanted half eaten lunch on your dashboard, and you might think there is no harm to pass on your leftovers. Sadly any tourist who does so could well be issuing a death sentence for the very animals they loved so much during their holiday.
This was highlighted in a dramatic and controversial fashion recently when Fred, the one time leader of the Smitswinkel troop, was sadly euthanised on the orders of Cape Nature. It was news that made international highlights as reported by:
This followed the previous removal of an over-aggressive alpha male baboon in the nearby suburb of Scarborough last year. In the case of Fred, he had become so used to associating the presence of cars with food that he had lost all fear of humans and their vehicles. He had learned to open car doors and how to quickly get in and out of open windows. Whilst driving through the area many times myself, I had seen him dive into unsuspecting tourists’ hire cars and run off with their picnic lunches or indeed their day packs.
In the six months leading up to his removal, the Baboon Research Unit at University of Cape Town had followed him and filmed his aggressive behaviour. Rather than fearing humans, he now saw them as a free lunch and attacked tourists, researchers, and local residents alike. The frequency of car raids in which locals and tourists were injured or traumatised rose to unacceptable levels. Despite having a full time monitor allocated to him, to usher him away from human interactions, in one month alone at the end of 2010 he still made 28 car raids on unsuspecting motorists.
Euthanasia is always the last resort and was not a popular decision, even amongst the local population whose weekend road trips were often affected by Fred and his troop. Most car raids are on people who are not feeding baboons, but parked innocently admiring the spectacular views along the coast road. It was those who came before, and are now sitting at home showing their friends photographs of Fred taking an apple from their hands, that are guilty.
It is sad to say that even local tour guides can be guilty of feeding the baboons or allowing tourist to take their lunches in car park areas when baboons are around, in the hope of a spectacular shot for their group and a handsome tip at the end of the day. But the signs along the road are clear and the international outcry at Fred’s ending is still being heard around the world. Do not feed baboons! However much you may love their antics and feel like rewarding them. They are wild animals and not circus performers. There is more than enough food growing wild for them in the Cape, but who amongst us would not take the easy option of a free handout when offered? Feeding baboons will ultimately result in tourists and locals, who come after you, risking injury and the baboons themselves meeting an early end.
If we can learn from past mistakes than maybe Fred the Baboon did not die in vain. Maybe he can be remembered for starting a more responsible wildlife viewing behaviour from visitors to this beautiful part of the world.
Let Fred be an ambassador for more responsible behaviour by us humans and encourage baboons to forage naturally again.