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It’s too late for the ‘can’t interfere with nature’ argument – suffering baboons need our help and compassion


Jenni Trethowan has championed the rights of baboons in Cape Town for 25 years. In 1990, following the culling of a troop of baboons in Kommetjie, she, with Wally Petersen, formed the Kommetjie Environmental Awareness Group (KEAG) which successfully lobbied for the protected status of baboons on the Cape Peninsula. In 2001 she left KEAG to start Baboon Matters, focusing on creating awareness for the plight of baboons living on the urban edge. She has since featured in more than 40 documentaries, received numerous awards, published a book and been personally commended on her work by Dr Jane Goodall.

The debate around ‘letting nature take its course’ is becoming increasingly redundant as the remaining wildlife and natural spaces are increasingly impacted upon by humans. We occupy more and more space, pollute more and more air, water and land, dominate resources and generally act as if we own the planet – but then in some instances still argue (ridiculously) that we ‘can’t interfere with nature’.

At the end of some of the longest, hottest days in the field recently, the team had said how nicely a cold beer was going to go down when they got home. It seemed that after such a roller coaster of emotion and effort it would be a great idea to all sit down together and relax with a cold beer for a moment, so we met up with some of the folk who had given so freely of their time and help for the Arabella baboons and enjoyed time together.

As we sat around the table, we shared our thoughts about what we had seen and felt. One comment in particular has stayed with me. A local farmer and landowner expressed, with deep emotion, how touched he had been to see a group of people from such different communities, walks of life and experiences working so hard together for the baboons. He was so right, we had all come together for a common purpose and goal, to help wildlife in need.

For me, this is the epitome of how things should be – we need to let go of the politics, of what “should” happen, and concentrate on “what could happen”. In this particular case, there had been a sequence of events that illustrated just how much we need to be reviewing and revising outdated thinking and working positively towards proactive new methods.

It has been confirmed that the Kleinmond fire, which devastated about 5,000 hectares of mountainside, was in fact started by men (illegal wood cutters). The fire swept through poorly maintained, government-owned pine plantations that are (were) heavily infested with alien vegetation, and fire experts believe these fires fed by non-indigenous vegetation can burn at three times the temperature of fynbos fires.

Nearly three weeks after the fires, crews were still checking for flare-ups and we reported incidents where burnt-out trees and logs reignited. In addition to the heat generated by the fires, there were extremely high daily temperatures and strong winds – a burning dust bowl of ash and everywhere lay smouldering logs and blackened stumps.

Into this scenario add the “unmanaged” Arabella troop of about 30 baboons. Normally the troop quietly go about their business and range between the Arabella Estate and the fruit farms along Highlands Road. Farmers and landowners speak fondly of the troop, who are easy to chase off fruiting crops and move on quickly.

Now, huge tracts of the Arabella troop’s home ranges have been destroyed through no fault of the baboons. What we saw of the fire-affected troop was that at least 12 baboons had burns to their hands and feet, some suffered significant burns that should have had treatment, some should have been euthanised so they did not die the awful deaths that awaited them.

It was traumatic to witness baboons crawling over the hot, burnt ground with palms held skywards to keep their painful hands off the ground as they shuffled and hobbled to get to the food they could only lift with huge effort. It was heartbreaking to see a juvenile unable to jump across a shallow drainage ditch and lower his body painfully down and then battle to climb out. We saw a male baboon carry a juvenile to food because the youngster couldn’t walk. Where was his mother?

To us, it seemed so clear that these animals needed help and we understood that for some of the baboons help would come through merciful euthanasia.

As much as I may advocate to “leave the politics behind”, organisations, people, groups of people are notoriously complex and complicated; there are differing agendas, opinions and all too frequently a lack of transparency. In this context, I should not have been too surprised to hear that a “joint” decision had been made to “let nature take its course” and not to draw too much attention to the plight of these burnt baboons. 

I have written to the mayor and the two local baboon interest groups involved, asking reasonable questions so that I can better understand the process and decision arrived at. At the time of writing there has been no response from any of them.

In the past weeks we focused energy on attempting to rescue the burnt baboons and we carry a very heavy burden that despite our best efforts we were thwarted by weather, time and permits. Some of the mechanics of a rescue operation such as this can be streamlined, and we hope to meet in the coming weeks to see what can be improved upon.

But issues of the heart are not so easy to resolve. Why did two of the prominent local baboon activist groups choose NOT to help these baboons? Would they have followed their own instructions had the Betty’s Bay troop (for example) been burnt by fire? Would they have been inclined to let nature take its course had it been charismatic Thunder or little Pluto dragging burnt hands and feet over charred ground?

The debate surrounding “letting nature take its course” is becoming increasingly redundant as the remaining wildlife and natural spaces are increasingly impacted upon by humans. We occupy more and more space, pollute more and more air, water and land, dominate resources and generally act as if we own the planet – but then in some instances still argue (ridiculously) that we “can’t interfere with nature” – a bit too late for that sentiment, I would say.

When it comes to baboons, there always seems to be a double standard. I hear arguments that they are resilient, heal well, and “would choose to take their chances”, but I ask: if we were looking at a family of cute otters (for example) with burnt hands and feet, would we be so cavalier in letting them just “get on with it”? In fact, if it were any other species would we let them suffer the way the Arabella troop was left to “get on with it”?

Perhaps baboons are resilient and heal well, but I don’t think that any animal (baboon or other) would choose the levels of pain and suffering over help if help were provided.

We are living in increasingly pressured, complex times and within these hectic circumstances, our self and self-worth are under threat. How do we keep our heads and hearts intact? The only way we will be able to hold ourselves, heart and soul, together will be through caring enough to hold our planet and all our wildlife neighbours in compassion and understanding.  

In two recent high court cases, judges made enlightened statements regarding animals’ right to welfare and individual care. These are important decisions that will surely help to change some of the outdated regulations governing the way wildlife is managed. But, we cannot wait for laws and regulations to change for us to do what we know to be true and ethical. Now more than ever, we have to make sure we have done everything that we can to be better neighbours for our wildlife.

It is our duty to manage our lives, our waste and our space to be better partners on this planet and it is our duty to ensure that wildlife is not left to suffer unnecessarily if appropriate veterinary care (including euthanasia) can be provided. Resources must be allocated to ensure appropriate, effective provision of care.  

The man-created Kleinmond inferno must serve as further impetus for us to change protocols and crisis management of injured wildlife. United, common goals provide the best incentive and environment for change, and I sincerely hope that all baboon-related organisations stand together in the call for change to management and crisis management of baboons.

My personal thanks to Cape of Good Hope SPCA, CapeNature, NSPCA, Gerda Wilkens, Sunel Visser, Liz and Graham, the Greyton Baboon Monitors, Richard and Philippa Middleman, Nola and James, Luzanne Kratz – Prime Crew, Stephen Munroe – CARE, Brett Glasby, Bool Smuts, and Nicholas Trethowan. DM


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