‘It’s like a bomb has been dropped’: Cape authorities pass the buck after well-known baboon is put to death
Philemon, an adult male baboon in the Cape Peninsula, was killed by authorities last week for allegedly instigating ‘raiding behaviour’. The authorities have not provided proof of ‘40 occasions’ Philemon entered the urban area.
When Daily Maverick tried to establish on what information the decision was made to euthanise well-known baboon “Philemon”, all those involved pointed the finger at someone else, with nobody able to offer the actual evidence on which they based the decision.
Philemon was put to death on the morning of Thursday, 8 April in the mountains between Murdock Valley and Smitswinkel Bay. He was a well-known member, and former alpha male, of the Smitswinkel Bay troop. He had been accused by the City of Cape Town of leading the raiding of homes.
The stakeholders involved in the management of baboon troops in the Cape Peninsula are the City of Cape Town, CapeNature, SANParks, Table Mountain National Park, NCC Environmental Services, the local ward councillor as well as community representatives in a structure called the Councillor’s Appointed Representative of Baboon Suburbs (Carbs).
Many residents of Murdock Valley and Smitswinkel Bay have demanded answers, but none are forthcoming.
They suspect that the decision was made based on a spreadsheet compiled by a small group of residents who are anti-baboon and in favour of their killing.
The information on the spreadsheet contained information gleaned from among others a private community WhatsApp group, as well as residents who informed Murdock Valley South resident Mike Gibson.
The WhatsApp group is mostly used by residents to informally alert one another of the presence of the troop. Very few of these residents were anti-baboon and were not made aware that their information was allegedly being used to add to Philemon’s death warrant. In fact, they say that Philemon was often not the “perpetrator”.
Residents have claimed Gibson has been leading the campaign to have Philemon removed and sent incident reports to the local councillor, Simon Liell-Cock. According to sources, NCC Environmental Services were not privy to the reasons for Philemon’s death warrant, but were simply instructed to carry out the order.
Chantal Luyt says she has been the Councillor’s Appointed Representative of Baboon Suburbs for Smitswinkel Bay for years. She was instrumental in petitioning against Philemon’s possible euthanasia in 2020 when he was accused of raiding. She first read of Philemon’s death in news reports. This is in contrast to Gibson, who petitioned Liell-Cock for Philemon to be dealt with and confirmed in an email to select neighbours that he had personally been alerted by the city.
Luyt said she had experienced a good relationship, with clear communication, between NCC Environmental Services and the community. She fears that has now vanished. “This is like a bomb has been dropped,” she said.
It is unfair to blame a single baboon for what an entire troop does, argued Luyt. She observes them almost daily and has witnessed that entire troops are involved in the raiding that Philemon has been accused of.
“They are trying to pin it on him in order to take him out,” she said. She is adamant that the raiding will continue after his death.
Some residents had started “baboon-proofing” bins, she said, to try to dissuade the baboons from coming into the area.
Beyond bins, baboons also seek out vegetable patches, fruit trees and open houses.
“If the community could all just work together and buckle down for a month or two and be extremely sensitive about how their houses are run, then this would stop,” Luyt said. A few weeks ago, the troop came down and “hit a jackpot” because it was bin day. Since then, they haven’t left the area.
She commended the baboon monitors for their efforts to get them out of the area in difficult terrain.
However, this is an “easy way out” for the authorities, she believes. She is concerned that the “ultimate goal at this point is to keep the population down”.
“I’m completely shocked and I honestly thought that we’d managed to get over this mountain, especially with the whole Kataza ordeal. I thought it might have opened their eyes a little bit, but clearly not. The transparency is clearly not there. The proof is in what happened today.”
Many residents approached by Daily Maverick were not keen to go on the record. Most of them said they were horrified by the killing of Philemon and although they wanted the baboon monitors to stop the troop from entering the suburb, they did not support moves to have any baboons killed. Some said they felt duped by Gibson, who, they said, did not disclose to them that he had been pushing for the removal of baboons.
The city’s stance
On 8 April the City of Cape Town informed residents through a press release that Philemon had been euthanised that day. Most of the residents read about it in the media.
The city argued that the baboon had entered the urban area more than 40 times between October 2020 and February 2021. He had allegedly entered homes 10 times in February and in recent weeks had formed a “splinter group” from the Smitswinkel Bay troop and encouraged other baboons to enter the urban area with him. It alleged that this put the entire group in danger.
The city argued that despite “reallocating more resources” and increasing engagement with the community on waste management, Philemon continued to enter the urban area and “had increasing and significant contact with residents”.
It told Daily Maverick that NCC Environmental Services had launched a programme in October 2020 to educate residents and business and restaurant owners about baboon-proofing waste bins, vegetable gardens and kitchens. It had also engaged with the local ski-boat club and closed down public braai areas.
“These actions did not succeed in deterring the persistent and continuous raiding behaviour, unfortunately,” it said. The “baboon rangers” could not deter Philemon from entering the urban area.
In the press statement it said: “In the interest of the safety of the Smitswinkel Bay troop, and the safety of local residents, it was recommended to CapeNature and SANParks that the raiding baboon be euthanised.”
The city told Daily Maverick that: “The baboon population on the Cape Peninsula has grown year-on-year since the City’s Urban Baboon Programme started over a decade ago. Selective euthanasia is used as a very last resort only. More baboons die from inter-baboon conflict, unlawful killing by property owners, or by cars when they cross the road, than by selective euthanasia.”
“CapeNature, who supported the removal of this baboon, issued the permit, and the City can confirm that an independent veterinarian assisted with the procedure that took place earlier today,” it said in the public statement.
Forty incidents: According to whom?
However, CapeNature told Daily Maverick that “the mandate of baboon management in this case resides with the City of Cape Town” and referred Daily Maverick to the city’s environmental management team.
Nonetheless, it confirmed that it had supported the city’s recommendation for the “removal” of Philemon. It said the removal “was actioned in compliance with a permit issued earlier to City of Cape Town’s service provider [NCC Environmental Services] by the entity”.
It said it was satisfied that the removal complied with “standard protocols and approved guidelines”. It did not elaborate on what these standards are.
The City of Cape Town has since at least 2009 outsourced its baboon monitoring project in the Cape Peninsula. The company’s mandate is to lessen conflict between human residents and baboon troops.
NCC Environmental Services held the contract to manage this programme between 2009 and 2012, and again from 2020 until the present.
When asked why Philemon was euthanised, who made the decision and on what information this decision was based, the company referred Daily Maverick to the City of Cape Town, as “we are not allowed to respond to the media”.
Simon Liell-Cock is the councillor for Ward 61, which includes Smitswinkel Bay and Murdock Valley, part of Simon’s Town.
He agreed with the city’s position that Philemon had been euthanised “due to his raiding behaviour and the danger this presents to the entire troop”.
He explained that the city relies on “hard evidence” presented by NCC Environmental Services for decisions relating to baboon troops. He said euthanasia was “a last resort” when there is “exhaustive evidence” and when all other efforts have proved ineffective. He did not share the “evidence”.
The decision to euthanise rests with CapeNature and SANParks, he said. This decision is based on information provided by NCC Environmental Services and the City of Cape Town, he said. Neither he nor the residents are consulted on individual cases.
Some community members have accused him of “hating baboons” and wanting to get rid of them. To these allegations he responded:
“As a ward councillor, I am used to these emotional and defamatory outbursts. Unfortunately, social media has provided a platform for fringe views and fake news to be put forward as fact by extreme groups on both sides. I have been accused of being an extreme ‘greeny’ by developers and a developers’ ‘stooge’ by socialist ideologues and animal rights activists.”
The liaison between NCC Environmental Services, the City of Cape Town and the local ward councillor is the Councillor’s Appointed Representative of Baboon Suburbs. Each area of the Cape Peninsula has its own representative selected by the local ward councillor.
There is confusion over who is indeed a representative and of whom.
Gibson presented himself as the representative of Murdock Valley in an email to residents and possibly to the City. In an email sent hours after Philemon had been killed, he commended the decision to “act decisively” and euthanise Philemon. He said that he is “pretty sure” their “efforts” motivated the city to “act decisively”. He said the city had told him directly of Philemon’s euthanasia.
Gibson confirmed to Maverick Citizen that he is a “concerned residents’ representative” and does not advise the city or NCC Environmental Services “… in any capacity or manner with respect to its Baboon Management Programme in Murdock Valley”.
He confirmed that he had approached both entities to voice concern about the “inadequate measures” taken by them to “keep the baboons out of the residential areas”.
“As concerned residents, we keep an incident register of events that occur in our suburb. This register has been shared with the authorities to make them aware of the significant problems being experienced by householders on a daily basis,” he said.
The incident register seen by Daily Maverick lists numerous reports logged by Gibson.
“I have not made numerous calls to the Baboon Hotline with regard to my vegetable patch. Incidents where baboons have been in and through my property have been noted in the register together with the damage caused to both garden and infrastructure, as is the case with numerous and varied other incidents reported across the suburb,” he said.
The register seen by Daily Maverick confirms that Gibson is the main complainant and that it mostly relates to the raiding of his unsecured vegetable garden. Most residents have either given up on vegetable gardening or baboon-proofed their gardens.
When Daily Maverick sent follow-up questions, the city requested that all requests for comment from “officials and councillors and residents” be directed to it. It later backtracked and said it would only attend to questions directed at “officials, councillors and service providers that are contracted to the City” and did not explain why Gibson had sent media questions to it.
Liell-Cock confirmed that Gibson has been invited to become a representative, because “he was actively communicating with me, so I invited him to a meeting”.
When asked if he knew that the Murdock Valley community was not aware that Gibson presented himself as a community representative, he responded: “The internal community politics have no influence on my decisions – I listen to all residents but always rely on advice from the conservation professionals, who in turn rely on scientific, evidence-based research and decades of experience in the field.”
He denied Gibson had played any role in Philemon’s euthanasia and that “all decisions are based on objective criteria and evidence and not on emotionally based lobbying, whether this comes from baboon rights activists or angry residents.”
Liell-Cock claimed that Alderman Felicity Purchase is a representative because she “has property in Smitswinkel [Bay] and so I rely on her knowledge and community links when it comes to Smits[winkel Bay]”.
Purchase confirmed to Daily Maverick that she is the ward councillor for Ward 69 but does “sit on the community representatives around baboons”. The troop lives in Ward 61.
Liell-Cock said no other community members were invited to become a representative and did not share how other residents can join, even those who have been actively involved in trying to manage the baboons.
He said: “We only really need one community member from each baboon-affected area and nobody else had communicated with the city, so Mr Gibson was the obvious choice.
“The purpose of the Carbs reps is to have a member of the community to be a channel for communication both to and from the community and not to lobby a particular ideology or personal agenda.” Many residents indicated to Daily Maverick that they had in fact communicated with Liell-Cock around various issues including the management of the recycling and waste management. DM/MC
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