Defend Truth


Killing Brutus will not solve the baboon management challenges in Betty’s Bay


Pete Oxford is a zoologist and resident of Betty’s Bay, South Africa. He works as a professional naturalist and widely published photographer, with credits including National Geographic, BBC Wildlife and Time. He is also an author, having published 15 books with forewords by the likes of HRH Prince Philip, HRH Prince Charles, Sting, EO Wilson and the presidents of Guyana and Ecuador. He has a travel company leading small groups of travellers to all continents on natural history trips. He is a conservationist, Founder Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and co-founder of the Betty’s Bay Baboon Action Group.

Although there was never a ‘right’ baboon to shoot, Brutus was the wrong one. The shooter has made the situation worse, not better.

On Saturday, the key member of the Betty’s Bay baboon troop was brutally shot. His injuries required a reluctant euthanasia after lengthy consultations (on site many hours after the incident) between two separate vets. He was shot in the Sunny Seas area of Betty’s Bay, a neighbourhood where a particular venom against the baboons has been allowed to ferment for too long.

His name was Brutus. He was a magnificent animal who had become well known to the community at large, revered by many and integral to our segment of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve where we are beholden to act as its custodians for the benefit of all wildlife.

In no way do I condone such a killing. That being said, the perpetrator shot the wrong baboon!

If his or her rationale was “one less baboon is one less to worry about” then he or she tragically showed a complete lack of understanding of the ramifications of his crime. Leaving aside the illegality of the act, which we intend to address, let me explain.

Brutus, an adult male baboon of the Betty’s Bay baboon troop was shot on Saturday and had to be euthanased as a result of his injuries. Here he sits in the fynbos of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve in Bettys, Western Cape in his once classic calm and serene pose.
(Photo: ©Pete Oxford)

Brutus was the glue. He held the troop together, he grew up with the troop and his whole life has been closely associated with the village. He was related to many of the troop members and showed great empathy towards each of them, whether they were of his direct lineage or not. He would even fastidiously clean the wounds of juveniles, despite not being the parent. He had an uncommon, long-term bond with a low-ranking adult female – a committed pair. When Brutus was in charge (dominance was continually vied for and rotated through the males) the troop were at their calmest. He demonstrated observable leadership qualities and commanded great respect from others. He was not dangerous and never showed us any aggression. He will be missed for many reasons. 

Scarface, another of our adult males, has already been killed under the “management protocols” in operation here. We are now left with one adult male – Thunder.

Thunder is not at all like Brutus in character. Unfortunately, he does not share Brutus’s empathy. He is not the leader Brutus was. He did not grow up with the troop, being a relatively recent import. His energy revolves around mating rights. There will be major social upheaval within the troop and I think we will find he will prove more difficult to manage. This comment, however, does not at all excuse Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS), the contracted management service provider, from future failings – after all they only have one adult male now, not three. In short, again, although there was never a “right” baboon to shoot, Brutus was the wrong one. The shooter has made the situation worse, not better. No doubt accusations of anthropomorphism will fly in the face of my statements above, but they are borne from countless hours of professional observations in the field. Remember, just as dogs have different personalities, so do baboons – perhaps more so.

Why did it happen in the first place? 

There has long been divisiveness over baboons in our community. The “anti-baboon” lobby, for want of a better term (I shall call them the “antis” for brevity’s sake), has often insisted that the baboons must be kept out of the urban area (as per the naive instruction from province), that the Overstrand Municipality (OM) has not heeded their request to do so, that baboons are dangerous and that they should be “pushed back over the mountain where they belong”.

To address some of these points, we argue that even if the provincial mandate is accepted, it is not possible to realise those goals using the tactics of aggression and hurt currently employed. Betty’s Bay is unique and even to the casual observer it is immediately obvious that there is a steep, relatively barren mountain slope (particularly since our devastating fire of January 2019), which abuts a thin strip of lush vegetation, where we have our houses, before it is bordered by the sea. We have a 13km frontage of low-density housing, interspersed with prime forage to “defend” against baboons. An impossible scenario if all we can bring to the table is to shoot them with paintballs or try to scare them with localised noises. (Note: the “virtual fence” concept of noise aversion was convincingly “sold” to the OM and the antis as the ultimate solution. Its efficacy is not peer reviewed for this kind of topography nor was it tested here beforehand. The antis “bought” the idea too and are now confused and disillusioned as to why the baboons are still around. We never believed it could work here and the baboons, the community and even the OM must now pay the price. Incongruously, everyone but the service provider who made the claim in the first place). Naturally, with so much open space, it is no surprise that baboons simply run around the threat, skirting the potential problem to head down somewhere else. Baboons are smart, agile and fast. As is the case with most animals, if you harass them they run (and avoid detection). It doesn’t mean that when they run they do so “back over the mountain”. There is another, potentially more dominant and larger troop already right there with about six adult males (they have even been down to the village before and will do so again, given the gap). To complicate things, HWS actually goes up to the baboon sleep sites early in the morning and begins shooting at them! This, to me, makes absolutely no sense at all. By doing so you immediately remove any sense of sanctuary that you might want to instil in the baboons that the mountains are their safe place. Animal behaviour 101. Where is a baboon to go, what must a baboon do? If it is going to be shot at anyway it might as well be in a place it can get something to eat. Further, if you chase a baboon troop it scatters. There is no denying it. 

We are now in a situation where the troop is so highly splintered from being chased and shot at that individual baboons, or ones and twos, are now dispersed regularly over a 3km range. Young juveniles are isolated and left to cross the busy R44 on their own – a traffic accident waiting to happen. By being kept hungry after expending extra energy in flight, stress, being kept in suboptimal foraging areas or in the hot sun, two things happen. First, the baboons become even more determined for a quick, high-value reward (therefore, by weighing up cost against benefit, they are more prone to try and grab that loaf of bread or some pasta from a house, as well as the higher-quality vegetation along the roadsides or in gardens). Second, to better satisfy their daily energy budget they are now coming down to the village far earlier and leaving much later than pre-HWS management. Coupled with this inordinate splintering we now have a situation where house incursions become much more random and thereby much less predictable. Frustrations mount and Brutus gets shot. 

We do not condone the shooting for one minute! It is a product of either ignorance, fear, intolerance in the extreme, misunderstanding or perhaps just pure hatred. I feel compelled to lay blame also on HWS for reasons described. Before signing the deviated contract with the OM to include Betty’s Bay management, HWS was fully cognisant of the urban nature of the troop, the high levels of habituation and the raiding potential of the individuals. They took the contract anyway, it is lucrative. There has been an abject failure by them to keep the baboons out of the urban area or stop house entries. There is a long list of entities or behaviours they blame for their failure. Never, however, have they blamed themselves or their methods. When they claim on their website to be “the only company in the world who have found an effective management strategy to prevent human-baboon conflict”, we must argue their claim. 

For a decade they used the same methodology on the peninsula and baboons were in towns repeatedly. Here in Betty’s Bay the topography and geography are inherently more difficult. If it didn’t work there it never had a chance here. There is an utter obstinance to try something different and use an “adaptive” approach as requested by the OM. HWS complains directly to the antis to blame the recently imposed mayoral moratorium on killing or shooting projectiles at baboons for having reduced their effectiveness to the extent that they can no longer do their job. For months, however, in the days when HWS had full use of everything in their “toolbox”, including permission to shoot paintballs even within the sanctity of the Harold Porter Gardens, to use the virtual fence and bear bangers, etc, we saw a massive spike in house entries in certain areas. The bottom line is that the more aggressively you chase them, the more chaos ensues. It becomes like herding cats. 

HWS complains to the antis that they need more money! Let’s talk about that. The antis complain that the OM did not listen to them or do what they were “supposed to”. They appear blind to the fact that the OM did one helluva lot. It brought in HWS (what the antis asked for and against our recommendations, having predicted the outcome based on their previous track record. This comes at a cost of R32-million Overstrand-wide over three years – do they really want more?). It still does not mean it is going to work (nor is it working in neighbouring Pringle Bay). Furthermore, the first of the three adult males was killed under management protocols (a request was made by the antis to kill all three. They now have two down). The antis fail to understand some basic elements. It will not work the way they are going about it. Ten months in and a decade on the peninsula are testimony to that. Second, this particular troop has not lived “back over the mountain” since before its current members were born – if ever. If you want it to work then stop supporting HWS or the way they are going about it. Remember that they have a vested interest in wanting to stick around. All we want is some vestige of harmony, to smoke a peace pipe, get back to the way it was and to let bygones be bygones.

As to whether baboons are dangerous: sure, they can be perceived as dangerous, they are big, hairy, scary-looking and the males have big fangs, but they are not biting people in Betty’s, nor have they bitten anyone in Rooi Els whose members have lived with them in the village for 60 years. Dogs are dangerous. Often those that fear baboons attacking themselves or their children keep big dogs in their houses with small kids. There is a plethora of registered dog attacks in South Africa – it doesn’t add up. What does make sense is that people are fearful of baboons. This stems from misinterpreting them. If you are fearful and admit it we can offer to help. If there is no admission of that fear then it often manifests as aggression towards them. Education is key but the obstacle of division is difficult to overcome at the moment. 

With a calmer approach to management, causing a more cohesive structure under the new regime of Thunder (if we can manage that), then community tensions will tend to dissipate. Once we can get the troop back together as a troop then their movements are more predictable, advance warning becomes possible and folks need only wait the short while it takes for the troop to traverse the area and get on with their lives once they have passed through. You might even get to enjoy watching them and appreciate them for the iconic animals we are privileged to have as neighbours. DM/MC


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