CAPE CHACMA OP-ED
How Simon’s Town is trying to solve the baboon-human dilemma
What does it take to bring a community together to address a chronic problem that, for all its efforts, the government cannot fix without help? In some South African communities it is crime, in others it is crumbling infrastructure. Right now in Simon’s Town, on the Cape Peninsula, it is baboons. A volunteer initiative among residents hopes to tilt the scales through patient dialogue.
The majestic mountain range above Simon’s Town is home to three troops of chacma baboons, one above Da Gama Park and Welcome Glen to the north, another – the Waterfall troop – directly above the town centre, and the Smitswinkel troop that ranges between Froggy Farm and Smitswinkel Bay in the south. There are an estimated 150 baboons in all.
Over the years the three troops have formed a habit of visiting the town or its suburbs every few days, sometimes more frequently. Despite years of effort to secure our homes as the troop approaches, still we make mistakes and our unpadlocked rubbish bins, open windows and even fynbos gardens seem to provide them with rich enough pickings to encourage the next visit, and the next.
My wife and I have lived in the area for nearly 30 years and thought we were super-vigilant, but recently a door left open for a few minutes allowed a handful of quick-thinking, hungry and silent baboons into our kitchen. They worked fast and messily until we stumbled upon them and shepherded them back out. It is hard not to feel their presence as challenging – they are so like us in so many ways, display exemplary levels of cunning and determination, and yet are so utterly wild. And beyond rational persuasion, of course.
Incursions like these happen almost daily somewhere in Simon’s Town and, not surprisingly, have generated a range of resident responses. To some, and for all their attractive wildness, the baboons’ persistent and at times assertive raiding behaviour, which can lead to altercations between them and residents’ dogs, and occasional negative or unwanted interactions between residents and baboons, often places them in the category of “problem animals”, even “pests”.
For South African conservation authorities, the adaptable, resilient baboon, given the size of its population, has the lowest conservation status. In the farming areas of the Western Cape farmers may secure a licence to shoot no more than one baboon per day to protect their crops.
Yet to others their very wildness, coupled with the fact that they are our distant evolutionary cousins, were here before us and are defenceless against our rifles or poison, marks them as a form of life that particularly deserves our protection and care.
Between these polarised perspectives sit the great majority of residents, who recognise that the current situation is unsustainable, both for us humans having to be constantly hypervigilant, and for the baboons who are becoming increasingly used to human contact with all the risks that poses for them. These people would like something done about it, but are reluctant to align themselves with the high-intensity blaming – of both authorities and “opposing” residents – that has occasionally characterised those most vocal on the issue; so they have tended to keep their heads down.
The STCA initiative
In March 2022, the Simon’s Town Civic Association (STCA) acknowledged that the behaviour of the three troops represented a crisis and identified two critical elements that were missing: a coordinated and strategic approach to urban baboon management from the key authorities (the City of Cape Town and SANParks); and a way for the polarised resident discourse to calm itself so that the town can develop its own strategic ideas and claim its due place at the planning table alongside authorities and experts. Waiting for the authorities to hand down a new, better management plan in which residents had had no active say was no longer an option.
At the governance level, things have recently moved in a promising direction, thanks largely to the leadership, determination and pragmatism of Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and Cape Town’s deputy mayor, Eddie Andrews. They have publicly committed to finding a sustainable solution that works for both humans and baboons. At a workshop on 7 June, Creecy leaned on SANParks to come to the collaborative table to hammer out a new modus operandi with the City and other key role-players, including residents. This represents a breakthrough after more than a decade of the City carrying the financial and management burden more or less alone.
At the resident level in Simon’s Town, the STCA asked Professor Ben Cousins, Nadima Smith and me – all local volunteers – to run a dialogue-based process to enable residents to articulate their frustrations and, more importantly, what elements of a solution would make the best sense to them, given their value preferences and their intimate understanding of local conditions.
The process, which began in early April, has been unfolding through stages that were hard to predict at the outset. Indeed, without a template to follow and none of us being an expert on the issues, our facilitation team has to design our pathway as we move along, adapting our approach continually.
We decided as a first step to meet separately with residents who had expressed strong views about the problem over a period of time, in letters to the press, lawyers’ letters directed at the City, or through social media. We thought it important to recruit them into the process from the outset, since their standing outside it might rightly lead others to question its legitimacy. These are, after all, passionate people who have applied themselves energetically to resolve a pressing problem. In any democratic process, such citizens have an important role.
In the course of these meetings we not only invited the participants to spell out their views on what should be done differently, we also requested that, while our dialogue process was under way, they refrain from denigrating residents who held different views (a long-standing practice). We also asked them to refrain from bad-mouthing the City or other external parties – in effect, to “go on a denigration diet”. All those we asked agreed.
Having secured at least the provisional involvement of those residents who had a vigorously articulated position, we turned our attention to the much larger demographic, those we referred to as “the missing middle” – missing in that their voices were not typically heard amid the cacophony of those more passionately public in their views. For these, we held a series of briefings on Zoom (Omicron being still at large) and face-to-face workshops at a manageable scale.
Two things became obvious to us. First, we needed to emphasise and demonstrate at every turn our own neutrality as to the outcome. Second, only a tiny minority of residents had more than a glancing familiarity with the science, legalities and history relating to local baboon troops. Deductions from one’s own experience can take one a long way, but if residents are ever to sit down with the authorities to discuss major management decisions, a baseline of credible knowledge is essential.
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To that end we started interviewing the handful of experts who have been involved over the years in advising – or challenging – the authorities. These were academics, NGOs and practitioners and all were keen to help.
We have also sent a list of technical and strategic questions to these experts and at the time of writing we are consolidating their responses into a document we will circulate widely to residents, inviting feedback. We will then lay out what we believe are plausible options for a sustainable solution to the problem, and convene a series of workshops at which residents can review and discuss these options. The process will culminate, we hope, in a final stage where options are selected for taking into discussions with the authorities.
Reflecting on the challenge
It is tempting to believe that the struggles that will define our tomorrow take place far above our heads in that realm where headline-makers and political celebrities dwell. This can breed a sense of impotence, even fatalism. Yet, as we discovered during Cape Town’s drought and then in the early phases of the Covid pandemic, ordinary citizens represent an underestimated resource for mutual care and ingenuity. Yet we have few social mechanisms for bringing communities together in ways that allow these qualities to surface and be expressed. So, in a crisis, we have to make them up.
Although one cannot begin to compare Simon’s Town’s baboon crisis to the drought or pandemic, in its own localised way it reached a point where, with a little encouragement, citizens have proved themselves ready to experiment with fresh attitudes and thinking. The catalyst has been nothing more hi-tech than a series of opportunities to dialogue in small groups, listening more than talking. Perhaps there is the germ of a wider possibility here? DM/MC
Peter Willis is a resident of Simon’s Town, a freelance facilitator of strategic and leadership conversations and a Senior Associate of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. His co-facilitators in this project are: Nadima Smith, proprietor of The Lord Nelson Hotel in Simon’s Town and committee member of the STCA responsible for environmental matters; and Ben Cousins, Emeritus Professor at the University of the Western Cape, where he founded Plaas (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies), and a fellow Simon’s Town resident.
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