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Baboon management: City of Cape Town shows its spiteful side

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Taryn Blyth is the Councillor Appointed Representative for Baboons for Scarborough, Cape Town.

The city has reacted to an NSPCA statement by throwing all its toys out of the cot and punishing the public it is supposed to serve by threatening to stop all baboon management.

On 14 May, the City of Cape Town issued a press release stating: “The City of Cape Town wants to inform residents that its Urban Baboon Programme will no longer include the use of paintball markers as an aversion tool…. This instruction follows after the NSPCA’s [National Council of SPCAs] media announcement on 12 May 2021 that it no longer supports the use of paintball markers as a scientifically proven and humane aversion tool.”

The city then goes on to warn all residents of baboon-affected areas that baboons will now spend more time in these areas, and even threatens that it will “consider withdrawing the baboon rangers from these areas given that there are no alternative tools available to them to keep baboons out of the urban environment”.

It is hard not to see such statements by the city as petulant and spiteful. In essence, after refusing to engage in any meaningful way with residents and concerned organisations about the management of baboons (including the use of paintball guns) for years, it reacts to the NSPCA’s statement by throwing all its toys out the cot and punishing the public it is supposed to serve by threatening to stop all management and pretty much taking the line of, “If we can’t do it our way, we won’t do it at all and then you’ll see how bad things can get.”

The use of paintball guns to manage baboons has been a contentious issue since they were first brought in as a management tool in 2012. As an animal behaviourist, I have observed their use over the years with interest and concern. 

When first introduced, paintball guns were supposed to be used under strict conditions: The idea was to use them only to move baboons on from properties where they would “hole up” and the monitors could not effectively reach them. In other words, when a baboon went up a tree or sat on someone’s roof and looked down at the monitors in a “What are you going to do about it?” manner, the monitors would fire near (not at) the baboon so that the baboon would feel it could indeed be reached and so would move on. Monitors were never supposed to fire directly at baboons, and they were certainly not supposed to fire at baboons when simply shouting and clapping was enough to move them on or when they were not in an urban area.

However, with the arrival of Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS), things changed. The new mantra was “landscape of fear” — an attempt to create an association in baboons’ minds that when they entered an urban area bad stuff happened and when they were in the natural areas bad stuff did not happen. This meant that baboons were theoretically supposed to be exposed to paintball guns and bear bangers in urban areas and left in peace in the natural areas — a simple matter of classical conditioning: urban areas are dangerous, natural areas are safe. Therefore, baboons would stay out of the urban area.

However, several things went horribly wrong with this theory in practice:

The first was that there were many reports of baboons being hit directly with paintballs, including mothers with babies. Of course, people who care about animal welfare are going to react with concern to images of baboons with paint marks on their faces and be concerned about injuries.

Second, the paintball guns were no longer used only when baboons were in the urban areas, but also in the natural areas or at any time the monitors wanted to move them on. I witnessed baboons being paintballed at Red Hill on several occasions (even when they were drinking at Lewis Gay Dam), at Witsands beach and along the mountainside between Scarborough and Misty Cliffs. 

At this point, the entire premise of using actual science to create an aversion to being in the urban area falls apart. How could the baboons learn that urban areas were unsafe and natural areas safe when they were being paintballed in both areas? Yes, the baboons experienced a landscape of fear, but not just in the villages — they were harassed and placed under stress when in their natural areas too. At this point, paintball guns became “non-contingent punishment” — something unpleasant happens for no apparent reason, so there is no understanding of how to avoid it (except possibly learning to avoid the monitors). It is well known that non-contingent punishment leads to chronic stress and so becomes a welfare issue.

The third problem was that despite the assertions by HWS and the city that paintball guns were saving baboons’ lives and keeping baboons out of the urban areas 95% of the time, more adult male baboons were being killed by the authorities than ever before

If paintball guns were such a successful management tool, then why was there still a need to kill so many baboons?

The reality is that while paintball guns could have been a useful tool, if used correctly under specific circumstances, they were overused, and the monitors became completely dependent on them as a replacement for proper training in how to understand and manage baboons holistically. If they had not been abused in this manner, the public would likely have been far more accepting of them and the NSPCA may never have been put in a position where it had to withdraw support for their use.

In fact, in response to the city’s attempt to blame the NSCPA for derailing the entire baboon management programme, the NSPCA issued a statement that included the following: “We wish to clarify that the NSPCA/SPCA has not banned or prohibited the use of paintball guns, but have merely withdrawn our endorsement thereof…. The NSPCA/SPCA, however, believes the indiscriminate use of paintball guns fired at point-blank range at animals causes unnecessary suffering and therefore constitutes a criminal and prosecutable offence in terms of the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962.”

And again, while the city has reacted as though the NSPCA has pulled the rug out from under it, the NSPCA states:The City of Cape Town has been requested on numerous occasions to review the Paintball Gun Standard Operating Procedure and to do so on a regular basis. We recently became aware that an update was made in 2019.

“The NSPCA tasked the City of Cape Town with setting up a panel to include interested members of the public, animal rights groups, animal welfare groups, and Cape Nature to discuss a way forward with managing baboons in the Cape Peninsula. We are not aware of any such panel being formed as yet by the City of Cape Town. We do believe that such a panel will only benefit the City of Cape Town’s baboon management programme, the baboons and the ratepayers of the City of Cape Town.” 

The city needs to stop blaming everyone else for its refusal to engage with the public or to work with concerned organisations. It is the city’s very arrogance that ignored, dismissed and even mocked all concerned parties for so many years that has now put it in this situation, and yet it continues to learn nothing. 

In fact, once again the announcement threatening the withdrawal of monitors was not sent out to the Councillor-Appointed Representatives for Baboons of the South (Carbs) — like me, those I have spoken to have received no communication from the city at all — but was sent to a few personal contacts of the ward councillor from his own email address. One of the recipients passed this on to me, while other Carbs reps and communities had to find out from social media.

One has to ask when the City of Cape Town’s ward councillors, aldermen and other public servants will finally grow up, put aside their pride and develop some semblance of a sense of duty to actually engage with their constituents. DM/MC

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  • As long as both sides completely ignore each other’s arguments and do not offer alternatives, this conflict will remain. On the one hand there is no doubt that these animals are bring driven from their natural habitat and often get hurt and sometimes killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, they do limit peoples freedom on their property , can cause significant and very costly damage and have been known to be potentially dangerous to people and pets. If painball guns are the wrong way to go, what then is an acceptable alternative to actively protect personal property, pets and people? And pls do not just reduce it to locking your bin and closing your doors…

    • I believe that the acceptable alternative is to round up the troop and relocate them to a game park where visitors will pay to enjoy their antics. Having seen our lovingly tended vegetable garden brutally raped by the waterfall troop in Simons Town last Saturday , I am in no mood to tolerate these half hearted control methods adopted by the City or the baboon huggers.

      • When you moved to Simons Town you were well aware that baboons lived here. If you truly love your veggie garden just fence it in like the rest of us have to. Of course the baboons will raid it, what do you expect they would do? And no, your garden was not RAPED by baboons, it was RAIDED because you did not secure it properly and thus putting those baboons lives in danger when you know full well that allowing them access to food is a literal death sentence for them. This is incredibly irresponsible on your part. Lastly a reminder that rape is an act of sexual voilence, an act than 1 in 4 South African woman have experienced, comparing that to a few baboons opportunistically stealing your veggies is insulting and demeaning.

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