SUBURBS, GUNS AND BABOONS
A slaying in the Deep South: Inside the fallout from the killing of a baby baboon
In late September, a juvenile baboon was shot and killed by a Simon’s Town resident. The incident has deepened faultlines in the community over the vexed question of whether it is possible for humans and baboons to peacefully coexist in urban areas.
This is the part that nobody disputes:
On 19 September, a group of baboons was on the move around Seaforth, a suburb of Simon’s Town which is also home to its famous penguin colony. On Queen’s Road, the main drag leading to the turn-off to Boulder’s Beach, a trio of baboons entered a home on the hunt for food.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Juvenile baboon fatally shot in ‘distressing’ Seaforth incident — SPCA launches urgent investigation
There, the property owner – a woman in her 40s – responded with lethal force, using a pistol to fire at the baboons. By the time she stopped shooting, the smallest baboon of the three was dead.
When it comes to how and why the juvenile baboon was killed, however, the narrative is fiercely contested.
For those who argue that the presence of baboons in urban areas is a dangerous nuisance, the shooting is the regrettable but inevitable result of the effects of an overly soft approach to these primates. For those who value and enjoy the baboons, the killing typifies a repulsively barbaric attitude on the part of people who see the baboons as pests to be eradicated.
A rare point of agreement between the two camps: that baboon management in the Western Cape is simply not working – and tensions are building to fever pitch as a result.
‘These fokken baboons must just die’
Bryan*, a council worker for the City of Cape Town, was going about his duties as normal in Simon’s Town on 19 September. When he saw the baboons approaching him on Queen’s Road, he stopped his work and moved to the other side of the road. There, he watched as baboons entered a property.
They did so with ease, he told Daily Maverick, because – and on this point he is adamant – “the door was open”.
The next thing that happened, Bryan said, was that a car being driven very fast came to a screeching halt and a woman jumped out.
“As she was getting out of the vehicle, she was pulling out her gun. She ran across the road and was screaming, ‘these fokken baboons must just die!’ After that, she was just shooting,” Bryan said.
“It was scary. The baboons ran outside and she was still shooting after them. Then she told me that she had just shot some baboons.”
Bryan does not live in Simon’s Town and has no involvement in the wider baboon debate. Although he wanted his identity protected, he was willing to talk to Daily Maverick because he said he had found the incident shocking and distressing.
“Her kids were in the car,” he said. “She told them to stay in the vehicle.”
The identity of the woman in question is known to Daily Maverick, but we are withholding her name as investigations are ongoing.
After being contacted by Daily Maverick and invited to share her side of the story, the woman said that although she would welcome the opportunity to do so, on the advice of her lawyers she would not talk now.
As a picture of the dead juvenile baboon circulated, causing outrage, it was discovered that the woman had taken to social media just a day earlier with threats of violence against baboons.
“Do you understand what a constitutional right is [?] I have FULL RIGHT to DEFEND my home and the people in it! Watch this space,” she wrote.
“I’ll call [Cape Nature] to fetch the remains. For sure.”
In the same thread, she added: “This is a GREAT OPPORTUNITY for me to apply for a license for a shotgun.”
In other posts, she made her feelings about baboons clear, describing feeling fearful and under siege.
Tagging baboon advocacy group, Baboon Matters, she wrote: “Your little terrorists are causing damage. Attacked someone’s dog a few homes down the road, too! Sauntered over the road…Almost caused two people to have an accident!! My Home NOT my Alcatraz!”
In another post, she seemed to refer to previous damage caused by baboons, writing: “Next time the baboon comes through a CLOSED AND LOCKED window I’ll ask him if we can talk about it before he kills my boys, and my elderly family, and to please be considerate and not sh** all over my home and break everything it possibly can…”
With word of the incident spreading, some online commenters sprang to her defence.
“This is what happens when you are threatened by a pack of rampaging baboons! A WOMAN had to protect herself! I and everyone else in Simon’s Town knows that a baboon MAY be intimidated by a MAN, but not a WOMAN. Hence her reaction. For which she will now be condemned by the woke baboonies. Ugh!!” wrote one.
Another posted: “It is so sad to see people judging without knowing the story. The lady was in danger and was protecting herself and her 2 minor children…The neighbourhood hears shots fired but no one called the police to help her but so quick to tell her to rot in hell. It could have been an attack by robbers. It’s a very sad day in the valley if this is what our community has come to.”
The account given to Daily Maverick by the eyewitness, Bryan, would seem to undermine the idea that the shooter was acting in defence of her children – since he testifies that the children were not inside the home, but across the road in the car. It is also unclear how Bryan’s claim that the door to her property was left open squares with the shooter’s claims of feeling like a prisoner in her home.
The SPCA was immediately sceptical. In a statement published the day after the shooting, the animal welfare organisation wrote:
“The individual, who remains unnamed due to ongoing investigations, has confessed to shooting three baboons that had allegedly entered her residence, ransacking her kitchen. She has defended her actions by stating that the shooting was an act of self-defence against the attacking baboons.”
The statement continued: “However, the SPCA challenges this narrative. Contrary to the perpetrator’s claims, baboons are not typically aggressive unless directly threatened. This position is further bolstered by a concerning social media post made by the same individual on the Fish Hoek Community Facebook group a day prior to the incident. In the post, she explicitly threatened to shoot any baboons entering her property, leading the SPCA to believe that the act was intentional and premeditated.”
The SPCA announced that it had laid criminal charges against the woman for both animal cruelty and reckless firearm use.
Can killing a baboon be considered self-defence?
The killing of a juvenile baboon in this way throws up difficult questions about the validity of a self-defence argument when it comes to wild animals.
The shooting of such a young animal is in itself unusual.
The SPCA’s State of Baboon Welfare Report 2023, released in July, notes that “the sub-adult age group are mostly spared from human-induced injury”.
The reason for this, the report speculates, is that “people who would typically not hesitate to harm an adult animal might pause to reconsider when the animal is younger and considered to be less of a threat… in theory”.
Baboon experts agree that cases of baboons physically harming humans are rare, and there appear to be no reported incidents of this happening in the Western Cape in recent years.
US primatologist Dr Paula Pebsworth has studied baboons internationally, including in Cape Town.
Although she stressed that baboons do not typically attack people, Pebsworth cited a number of potential scenarios in which baboons might feel themselves under threat. They included if a baboon felt its offspring was in danger; if a dog was lunging at it; if a baboon experienced someone staring at it as an act of aggression, or if it was injured.
“It is difficult for me to imagine a situation in which someone felt lethal force was required to defend oneself against a juvenile baboon, but I wasn’t there,” Pebsworth told Daily Maverick.
“Baboons seldom if ever push home their physical advantage on urban dwellers,” University of Cape Town ecologist Prof Justin O’Riain told Daily Maverick. He added, however, that the primates could act in extremely intimidating ways.
“Even researchers who study baboons have proven ill-equipped to handle a mock charge from an adult male or the screaming and chaos that ensues when a group of baboons invades a house and finds food. Blood, faeces and urine mix with broken cutlery, crockery, ripped curtains, smashed light fittings and spoiled food…
“It is an extraordinary scene to behold and far worse when one happens upon it in progress,” O’Riain said.
“Expecting people living in residential suburbs to be psychologically and physically prepared for a house invasion by a group of baboons is unreasonable.”
For some Simon’s Town residents, there are two aspects of concern to the baboon killing story, as captured by the two sets of charges laid by the SPCA. One element is about the treatment of baboons and animal cruelty. The other is about the use of guns in built-up settings.
Advocacy group Baboon Matters suggested on Facebook after the shooting that the fact that “residents are using high-calibre weapons to randomly shoot at baboons” is creating “a far more dangerous situation than the baboons themselves ever could”.
A further concern has been the spread of disinformation on social media about the permissibility of killing baboons.
This was recently highlighted by an NGO, the EMS Foundation, in a report on baboons in Pringle Bay, where it was noted that a social media campaign was wrongly informing residents that “it is permissible to discharge a weapon to prevent harm to property damage, that it is deemed a justifiable reason and is not in violation of the law. It is important to note that the Animal Protection Act of 1962 does not pertain to wild animals”.
The EMS Foundation wrote: “We have requested an official criminal investigation into the current situation in Pringle Bay where violence towards baboons is incited and perpetuated.”
Was the Simon’s Town shooter breaking the law by discharging her firearm in this manner in a built-up area on a busy suburban road?
The South African Gun-Owners Association (Saga) was equivocal when approached for comment on the matter.
“The law states that one may not discharge a firearm in a built-up area unless there is good cause to do so. A legitimate reason to do so would be in the case of self-defence, of one’s own or another’s life, such as your child, family or neighbours,” Saga chair Damian Enslin said.
“Self-defence may also be a legitimate reason if one is defending oneself against an animal. Any use of a firearm must always meet the legal requirements and at the same time there is also the legal responsibility to protect the lives and wellbeing of your fellow citizens in your neighbourhood.”
Another local gun expert who spoke to Daily Maverick off the record said, however, that on the back of the known facts about the case, the shooter was in “deep trouble”.
The expert also said he would have expected Simon’s Town police to have confiscated her gun immediately. This does not appear to have happened.
Baboons: The Western Cape’s very own culture wars
In the ongoing and hugely polarising argument about baboons in the Western Cape, there is no ambiguity about where veteran newspaperman Max du Preez hangs his hat.
“I fucking love baboons!” he bellows.
“I view it as such an absolute privilege to have this experience: to live on the urban edge and have these visits [from baboons],” Du Preez, a Simon’s Town resident, says.
“Then I look at the WhatsApp group and see: shoot the vermin! The baboon just broke down my door and killed my dog! That’s just nonsense. This is an intolerant person by nature, a bigoted person. I judge you according to how you live with the baboon situation.”
Tempers run so high in the Western Cape baboon debate that it’s hard not to suspect, after a while, that people are not really talking about baboons any more: that baboons are standing in as proxies for other prejudices or fears.
One baboon activist compared the tensions between pro- and anti-baboon folk in Simon’s Town to those between Democrats and Republicans in the US. Indeed, some of the language is notably similar, with baboon activists dismissed as overly “woke” or – to use an insult that the baboon shooter has previously deployed on social media – “libtards”.
Baboon activists in Simon’s Town who volunteer their time to help ensure that baboons cross the road safely told Daily Maverick in recent weeks of their experiences of being photographed, sworn at, threatened with being run over, and even being shot at with pellet guns by residents who accuse them of helping to ensure that baboons stay in busy urban areas where they rampage through gardens and homes.
In such a heated debate, neither side is immune from mischaracterisations, conspiracy theories and fake news.
Some ludicrous stories have circulated through Simon’s Town: about activists deliberately luring baboons into town with food, hosting baboons for dinner, and carrying baboons on their backs up and down the mountain.
The other camp suspects the worst of many of the players in the baboon management space, accusing them of seeking to deliberately harm and kill the primates. There are rumours of a SANParks ranger who is a for-hire baboon assassin, and an academic who requires a constant stream of dead baboons for research purposes.
Among the most vocal of baboon advocates, there is also disagreement about who is most entitled to speak on behalf of baboons, and who truly has their best interests at heart.
Scientists have accused the baboon activists of unhelpful anthropomorphism; activists have accused the scientists of being wedded to outdated, overly conservative ecological principles.
“Baboon politics here are wild, man, wild,” says Du Preez.
Baboon management policies failing
Almost the only thing that pretty much everyone engaged with baboons agrees on is that the current approach to baboon management is inadequate.
In the past, the use of baboon monitors or rangers has been proven to be reasonably effective. Research carried out by UCT in 2008 on two Cape Town baboon troops showed that the troops spent only between three and 19% of their time in urban areas when monitors were present. This shot up to 70 to 80% when the monitors were not around.
But the baboon killed in September belonged to a splinter group of 13 baboons which has been unmonitored since July. The reason for this, Daily Maverick was told by the Cape Peninsula Baboon Management Joint Task Team (CPBMJTT), is that “resources are finite”.
The removal of the monitors could not have come at a worse time, with the SPCA’s latest baboon welfare report clearly illustrating the ways in which the baboon/human relationship in Cape Town is increasingly fraying.
Almost two baboons a month were admitted for treatment to the SPCA between 1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023, of which 68% had to be euthanised. The majority of injuries and deaths, the report states, are from car accidents and wounds from air rifles and guns. Ninety-nine percent of baboon admissions were found through X-rays to have two or more air rifle pellets lodged in their bodies.
“For residents who have complained to the city about the [baboon] situation and are told there is no management help coming – but please do keep paying your rates – then our data are clear: residents will take action and those actions are seldom good for either the baboon or the person,” O’Riain told Daily Maverick.
Part of the problem is the wrangling over whose responsibility baboons are. When Daily Maverick contacted the Cape Peninsula Baboon Management Joint Task Team, it was quick to remind us that “the City is no longer the sole actor in this space”, with representatives from SANParks and CapeNature also having input.
With the September baboon shooting having significantly raised the temperature of the debate, the task team told Daily Maverick that it “will soon meet with the community of Simon’s Town to discuss interventions”.
It has also recently released a report on a proposal which has been on the table for at least a decade: a baboon-proof fence to be erected on the mountainside above Simon’s Town, tracking the firebreak from Murdoch Valley.
Among the dozens of Simon’s Town residents Daily Maverick spoke to, not one expressed support for the electric fence, regardless of their feelings towards baboons.
Concerns included the cost of the project, the expense of maintaining it, the likelihood of the fence being damaged or failing, an undesirable feeling of containment, and the dangers to animals and property if a fire broke out which could not easily be contained because of the fence. (The word “fire” does not appear once in the report.)
The SPCA has also registered its disapproval of the idea, noting that the fence “has the potential to create further problems with regard to patrolling, monitoring and the propensity of fences to be widely used to enable illegal snare activity”.
Simon’s Town residents taking matters into their own hands
“I’m not a tree-hugger. I’m a liquidator by trade, and I’ve got a lot of work. But animals are dying and you have people sitting in publicly funded offices who do not implement the solutions,” lawyer Ryno Engelbrecht told Daily Maverick.
A resident of Scarborough on the opposite side of the peninsula, Engelbrecht is having legal papers drawn up to compel authorities to put into action baboon management measures which have been contained in policies for over two decades.
“In the last 23 years, the only solutions implemented have been baboon rangers and ineffective baboon-proof bins, of which 9,000 were issued and then withdrawn,” Engelbrecht says.
He complains that the city’s bylaws on waste management are not being enforced, particularly with regard to the Navy, headquartered in Simon’s Town. On a Facebook group Engelbrecht runs, he has posted pictures showing unsecured rubbish tips around Navy properties – providing a veritable buffet for hungry baboons.
Engelbrecht says the current situation is unsustainable – and worsening.
“A baboon may run across the road, a woman with kids in her car may swerve and hit a pole and die. [Authorities] can’t just carry on kicking this to touch.”
A group of residents is determined to prevent the worst-case car crash scenario. Every day of the year, rain or shine, Luana Pasanisi is in central Simon’s Town with fellow volunteers ensuring that motorists are aware of baboons in the area and checking that there are no easily available food rewards for the baboons, like open bins.
Pasanisi has also pioneered a waste removal programme in Simon’s Town which sees an estimated two tons of wet food removed from local restaurants and businesses per day, out of reach of the paws of foraging baboons, and diverted to feed animals – mostly pigs – in informal settlements.
One of the reasons why she sees baboons as a force for good is that a by-product of their presence in Simon’s Town is that the town is much cleaner than comparable areas elsewhere, as a result of keeping rubbish secured.
Another Simon’s Town resident, Ashleigh Olsen, has taken it upon herself to raise funds to employ two monitors for the Seaforth baboon troop, home to the dead juvenile.
“After the shooting, it became even more apparent that we have to have eyes on them,” Olsen told Daily Maverick.
The monitors had, at the time of writing, been in place for a week, using flags to alert people to the presence of baboons, clipping any open bins, and warning tourists not to crowd the baboons. They are also gathering information on the habitual movements of the troop, to be used to better guide management strategies.
Olsen says she finds it frustrating that private citizens are having to pay for this service.
“I look at the coachloads of tourists coming through Simon’s Town every day. I sometimes can’t even cross the road because of the traffic. There is money pumping into this area for biodiversity. Tourists stop to see the baboons. There’s so much interest here: the baboons could be paying for themselves from eco-tourism.”
Will any action be taken against the baboon shooter?
Observers of the Seaforth troop report that the mother of the dead juvenile can be seen almost daily, seeming to search for her baby around the site of the shooting.
More than a month after the killing, not much visible progress appears to have been made in the case. Daily Maverick understands that although several people deposed affidavits in the matter, no witnesses have yet been contacted by police.
SPCA spokesperson Belinda Abraham told Daily Maverick that the animal welfare organisation has lodged a complaint against Simon’s Town SAPS with the provincial police commissioner for lack of action.
“The docket has subsequently been transferred to the SAPS Stock Theft Unit for further investigation and CapeNature has also added charges to the docket,” Abraham said, adding that the SPCA expected to meet the investigating officer soon.
CapeNature told Daily Maverick it could not divulge any information as the investigation was still under way.
SAPS Western Cape spokesperson Wesley Twigg, meanwhile, said: “Kindly be advised that Simons Town police registered an enquiry for investigation, following a shooting incident on 2023-09-19 at a premises in Seaforth, Simons Town, where a juvenile baboon was shot and killed. Investigations continue. There are no new developments to report at this stage.”
Advocacy group Baboon Matters recently warned on Facebook that if the shooting was not prosecuted, “the feeling is that residents truly will rebel”.
The reality of the baboon debate, however, is that the decision to prosecute the shooter will probably also inspire strong criticism from some quarters.
Dr Pebsworth watches the wider baboon argument with some concern from abroad.
“Baboons have been in South Africa for thousands of years and are important in terms of biodiversity… I sincerely hope that South Africans can learn to coexist with them,” she says. DM
*Bryan’s real name is known to Daily Maverick but has been withheld to protect his identity.