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WILD CONFRONTATIONS OP-ED

Wild baboons on the South Peninsula — how not to manage urban wildlife conflicts

Wild baboons on the South Peninsula — how not to manage urban wildlife conflicts
As the fire spreads all along Simon‘s Town in December 2023 the baboons find refuge on the buildings along Main Road often looking up towards their home and foraging grounds. (Photo: Gunnar Oberhosel)

Cape Town’s urban baboon management programme, once a conservation and community success story, has the potential to once again be a world-class example of how to manage wildlife on the urban edge. But…

What would you do if baboons entered your kitchen and trashed it while you were out at work, despite all your doors and windows being closed? What would you do if you saw an irate neighbour shooting lead pellets at a female baboon with a baby under her chest?

What if you came across neighbours disagreeing loudly about how best to respond to the constant presence of baboon troops in your suburb, and shouting abuse at each other?

Current chaos

These are not fanciful questions: they confront many of us who live on the South Peninsula in Cape Town, where a baboon management programme that performed well for more than a decade is becoming dysfunctional.

Over the past four years there has been a steady increase in the number of baboons foraging in suburban homes and gardens, restaurants and hotels. This can result in costly damage to property, in some cases costing tens of thousands of rands. Baboons in homes can traumatise domestic animals and residents, especially the aged and small children.

In addition to the impact on communities there has been a dramatic increase in injuries and deaths of baboons from shootings, motor vehicles and dogs. As the situation has deteriorated, mudslinging and vitriol between residents (mostly via social media) have become the order of the day.

baboons

Volunteers help baboons crossing Queens Road, Simon’s Town. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The Baboon Management Programme

The management programme funded by the City of Cape Town since about 2010 has used “baboon monitors” to herd troops away from human settlements, using a range of non-lethal methods, including human presence, noise and paintball markers. Teams of monitors are employed by professional service providers on contract to the City, which has borne most of the costs of the programme.

If monitor teams could not prevent a baboon from repeatedly damaging property and entering houses while people were home, then there was an agreed protocol for removing such individuals by having them humanely put down. 

Euthanasia is used to prevent “repeat raiders” and other baboons from suffering the many welfare harms that are now common in urban areas. These kinds of decisions were directed by management guidelines developed over 20 years with diverse input from residents, conservation authorities, the SPCA, NGOs and scientists, but have been anathema to some, strongly pro-baboon residents.

The City also provided some households with rubbish bins designed to be “baboon-proof”, urging residents to prevent baboons gaining access to human-derived foods in any form.

Until 2020 the programme was highly effective, resulting in decreased baboon deaths and a steady increase in population: a conservation success story.

Baboons on Main Road in Simon’s Town at 6am. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

Baboon management becomes ineffective

Sadly, the effectiveness of the programme has declined markedly since 2020, given an underfunded management programme that has left newly formed troops without any monitors at all. At the same time, the City has backed away from the protocol for habitually raiding males.

The City has also failed to roll out more baboon-proof bins, and residents have been compelled to adapt their bins by themselves (although only some do so in practice). The three authorities (City, CapeNature and SANParks) have not transitioned to a wider use of baboon-proof fences, despite scientific advice from about 2010 that this would become necessary at some point.

In 2022 the City announced, without public consultation, that it would be terminating its urban baboon management programme, and specifically the deployment of monitors.

New plans on the table

In June 2022, following many well-motivated complaints from the public, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy instructed the City, SANParks and CapeNature to collaborate in establishing a Cape Peninsula Baboon Management Joint Task Team (JTT).

The JTT spent 18 months drafting a strategic management plan, securing comments from the public and other parties, and then releasing a final version in December 2023.

The management plan in its current form suffers from four major problems.

First, it neither sets out a clear strategy nor prioritises particular interventions, and is short on convincing detail.

Second, while baboon-proof electric fencing is indicated to be a key innovation, the important fact that monitors will be needed for fencing to be effective is not adequately addressed. Monitors will be even more important in areas where fencing is not feasible.

Cape Town baboon

A baboon on the Cape Peninsula. (Photo: Gallo Images / Bateleur Publishing / Mark Skinner)

Third, the plan is unclear on who will erect, maintain and manage electric fencing and make key decisions in relation to baboon troops. It makes vague suggestions about “community partnerships”, “local fundraising” and “local solutions”. The need for a coherent, consistent and adequately resourced programme across the South Peninsula gets no mention.

Fourth, the plan reiterates the City of Cape Town’s intent to discontinue its funding of the service provider which manages baboon monitors from the end of December 2024.

Nowhere is it acknowledged that removing monitors without putting a viable alternative in place is regressive and almost certain to result in dramatically increased levels of human-baboon conflict, injuries to baboons, and intra-community tension, not to mention growing distrust of government.

Searching for the ‘middle way’

A South Peninsula Civics Coalition has emerged over the past 15 months, comprising representatives of civic, resident or ratepayer associations from Scarborough, Kommetjie, Sunnydale, Simon’s Town, Tokai and Constantia. The coalition seeks to assist in finding rational, science-based and pragmatic solutions to the complex problem of how to conserve and manage baboons at the urban edge.

The coalition has focused on taking advice from experts, helping to educate and inform residents, attempting to defuse tensions among communities through dialogue, and seeking opportunities to engage with the JTT. We have had several meetings with senior managers over the past few months, but so far these have achieved few tangible results.

Removal of City-funded monitors from 1 January 2025, without their replacement by viable alternatives, is likely to see even greater levels of frustration and antipathy among residents, and vastly increased injuries and deaths of baboons.

The JTT is currently holding a series of consultation meetings with residents in different parts of the South Peninsula. We hope that the authorities’ proposals to these meetings will be clearer and more thought through than those in the Strategic Management Plan on their websites.

A cyclist watches baboons close to Cape Point. (Photo: Gallo Images /Sunday Times / Marianne Schwankhart)

In particular, notions that residents can come up with viable management proposals on their own and that these will be endorsed by a majority of people is completely unrealistic. Our fear is that these meetings will instead generate ill-will and hostility, as well as exacerbate divisions.

The authorities in the JTT should instead focus on presenting a practical and detailed plan that is endorsed by scientists and adequately resourced. It should address the oncoming crisis through timely and decisive decision-making. Are these not the very responsibilities set out in the job descriptions of trained senior officials, who are, after all, employed by elected politicians in local, provincial and national governments?

Conclusion

Cape Town’s urban baboon management programme, once a conservation and community success story, has the potential to once again be a world-class example of how to manage wildlife on the urban edge.

Everyone – residents, conservation authorities, the tourist industry, the baboon troops themselves and, not least of all, the JTT’s senior political principals – stands to benefit significantly from a return to active, scientifically informed and properly resourced management of the Peninsula’s baboons.

Simple, you would think… DM

Emeritus Professor Ben Cousins, Peter Willis and Nicky Schmidt are members of the South Peninsula Civics Coalition.

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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Thank you for a balanced article on this matter. Most of the articles on this topic seem to be written by activists, that are absolutely uninterested in any other views but their own and seem to reserve their empathy for the baboons only. It’s just unhelpful to tell people to move away.

    • George 007 says:

      I second your thoughts. It’s hard to negotiate a settlement to any problem when one of the sides won’t give an inch. Why even bother?

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