Colours of Wildlife: Chacma Baboons

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

This time I give you two animals in one picture, and still at the same low, low price! This is a computer–enhanced pencil sketch of a mom and baby Chacma Baboon, Papio ursinus. This is the baboon species that commonly occurs here in South Africa. There are four other kinds of savannah baboon in Africa: the Yellow, Guinea, Anubis (or Olive) and Hamadryas Baboon. The last one occurs in the Arabian Penninsula as well.

It is fairly easy to distinguish Chacma Baboons from the others. They are among the largest of the baboons, with a total length of up to 1.8 m/ 6 ft – which makes them the longest monkeys in the world. Only the Mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx (which is a kind of stump–tailed rainforest baboon) is heavier, but shorter and stockier. Furthermore, unlike the Olive, Hamadryas and Guinea baboons, in which the male has a long mane draped like a cape over their shoulders and forelimbs, the Chacma Baboon is virtually maneless, the males just having a few long, coarse hairs on the neck and back. The Chacma baboon usually has a dull, grayish brown colour (though this varies), while the Yellow and Olive baboons are coloured as their names would imply, the Guinea Baboon being rich brown, and the Hamadryas Baboon being a silvery grey. Most distinctively, the Chacma Baboon has the longest face of them all, with the large males in particular having long, deep, doglike muzzles. The Chacma Baboon also shares with the yellow and the olive a tail that looks like it had been broken at a point a short distance from the base.

I often encounter these baboons. They are of course well established in large game reserves such as the Kruger National Park, but being adaptable and intelligent monkeys they still manage to hang on in many places outside reserves. They live in all habitats except for true deserts and tall, dense forests. Driving through the country you frequently see them beside the road or crossing it. One particular place you can easily see them is at the Abel Erasmus Pass through the Transvaal Drakensberg Mountains, not far from where I live. There’s a gorgeous scenic view with a waterfall and if you park your car at the view site, you’ll likely find baboons around. It's not a good idea to feed them. Though people do so – that's why they come there. But baboons associating food with humans is a recipe for disaster. They may attack people if the food doesn't come freely. And baboons are extremely dangerous animals. A male baboon has canine teeth longer and sharper than that of a lion. Also, like pretty much all wild animals, they are proportionally much stronger than humans. A big baboon can be as large as a chimpanzee, weighing in at 40 kg/90 lbs or more. Though attacks on humans are rare, they do happen, and the results can be very ugly. The attacking baboon is then usually shot. It is therefore for their sakes as well as ours that they should not be fed.

If you manage to avoid trouble with them, though, baboons are a delight to watch. They are very much like people. In fact, many local stories exist claiming that baboons can speak just like we can. But they never speak when humans are watching them, because they know that if we knew they could understand us, we would put them to work!

When you watch baboons you'll see many complex behaviours. The youngsters play with each other with full abandon – and with a recklessness seemingly based on childish delusions of invulnerability. They will leap about in tall trees, hanging upside down from slender twigs, jumping at and on each other. In all this their mothers will look on with what to us might seem a criminal lack of concern. The kids do seem to be near invulnerable, not much discomfited by falls from quite scary heights. They'll land in grass or bushes and be right as rain. But if they dare do something against the 'roolz' of the troop, their mothers will chase them and slap or pinch them, making them cry and squeal.

Baby baboons look quite different from the adults. They are short–faced with large eyes and ears. Very young babies will cling to their mother's bellies; somewhat larger ones will ride on her back as in my picture. Bigger than this and they'll be able to travel with the troop on their own. It is notable that in a baboon troop you'll usually see children of all ages, because baboons don't have fixed breeding seasons. Females bear children on average every two years, and a single female might therefore have a very young baby as well as some older children. Baboons reach puberty at the age of six or seven. Males will typically leave the troop to try and join others, but the females will stay. Baboons can reach the age of thirty in the wild, forty in captivity.

For baboons, foraging for food is by no means a simple activity. They can eat almost anything. They will pick fruit from trees or from the ground; they'll crunch on seeds, pods or nuts; they'll turn over rocks to find insects and scorpions – these they will render harmless by deftly pinching off the sting; they'll dig for bulbs and tubers; they'll take eggs from bird nests. Sometimes baboons will catch small or medium–sized mammals, up to young antelopes. Some baboons will seek food in water, catching frogs or fish, taking clams or oysters or digging up the bulbs of aquatic plants. Some baboons around the lakes of East Africa (although that's a different species, the Olive Baboon) have even taken to hunting flamingoes. All baboons need access to drinking water. Human dams and ponds have enabled them to occur at greater densities in some areas.

Then there's their interaction with each other. Children will play with each other, adults will groom each other or occasionally fight with each other. They will also warn each other if there's danger, and the dominant males will together face threats like leopards. The typical sound made by these baboons, usually as a warning, is a loud, two–phase bark, in Afrikaans usually written as 'boggom' (with a soft rather than hard g). In English it might be rendered 'baa–hom'. It is a familiar sound, especially when echoing around the cliffs of the mountains where these baboons dwell. They use their facial expressions to communicate as well. Yawning, displaying the fierce canine teeth, is an aggressive display used for intimidating other baboons or predators. Baboons also signal each other with their eyelids, which are light in colour and prominent when their eyes are closed or lowered. A final factor that many people will notice is that female baboons that are ready to mate display the fact very conspicuously: the naked skin of their buttocks will become sometimes quite grossly inflated and bright pinkish–red.

The troop is hierarchically ordered. All the males are dominant to all the females. There's usually a single dominant male, but a challenger can replace him by beating him in a fight. Just as in lions, a new dominant make will often proceed to kill the children of his deposed rival, impregnating the females so they would repopulate the troop with his offspring. The female hierarchy is based on blood relationships to the dominant female, and is unalterable. They strengthen social bonds by grooming each other. Males usually groom only females that are in the swollen–genitalia phase; females groom males and each other. Baboon grooming entails the two animals sitting close together while the one meticulously combs through the fur of the other with her fingers, removing and typically eating any parasites she finds such as ticks or fleas. The combing action also keeps the fur neat and clean. The size of a baboon troop is influenced by whether there is enough time in each day – apart from foraging and other activities – for all the females to groom each other. When the troop gets very big, sub–groups start to form, because the females don't have enough time to all get to know each other through mutual grooming. Certain cliques will form, those females in each just grooming each other and ignoring the members of other cliques. In time this often leads to troops splitting, the various cliques going off to form independent troops.

Social dynamics in baboon troops involve conflicts of feelings and interests. They're not like a luvvy–wuvvy hippy commune. Baboons frequently don't like each other, and often do a lot within the troop to antagonize each other. Some may bully or intimidate others; some may claim more than their fair share of food or other goodies. Many baboons in the troop would actually like to leave because they hate the guts of many or most of the others. But they stay because on their own they would not be able to survive. So they work to form alliances with others. The grooming helps with that … the more one baboon grooms another, the stronger the bond between them. They'll trade other favours as well. So some baboon groups within each troop will assist each other against other groups. But still, even within the smaller groups there will be competition and rivalries. The larger a baboon troop gets, the greater the internal pressures it will face because of this competition. At the same time it will increase its need of external resources as well. The upside of course is that the better the different members cooperate, the better use they will be able to make of the resources of their environment. But it's a matter of diminishing returns. At some point the troop will no longer be able to cope with either external or internal pressures, and will split up. As I said in the previous paragraph, the core that splits away will typically be a fairly dominant female and her circle of 'grooming friends'.

The social structure of baboons actually reveals a lot about ourselves. It is currently still believed that the ancestors of humans started out as savannah–dwelling apes that lived very much like baboons do. The origin of human language might have been a result of the very social pressure that cause baboon troops to split. One baboon can only groom one other baboon at a time. But humans can speak together in larger groups. When our ancestors started speaking with complex languages, this meant that they could gather round and trade stories of their days hunting and foraging, they could invent stories and myths, poems and songs. A single person could speak while many could listen –he better they spoke, the more captivating their stories, the more it impressed the listeners, the stronger the bonds defining and holding together the 'tribe' would be. This might be what enabled humans to form larger and more effective groups than any other kind of primate. Which paved the way for everything else.

Today baboons are frequently in conflict with humans. They raid crops, and as I said can be a nuisance when begging for food in game reserves or along the road. They sometimes even break into people's houses. They have extremely good eyesight and will spot and avoid men carrying guns, making them hard to shoot. They are less cautious around women, and to exploit this, some baboon–control game rangers have tried wearing dresses. This worked for a while, until the baboons figured the trick out and learnt to spot the cross–dressers! Though they are persecuted, they still persist and cannot be considered seriously threatened. Nevertheless it is my own opinion that we should respect them more, treat them much better and do more to peacefully co–exist with them.

Apart from the other savannah baboon species, there are two tailless jungle species, the previously mentioned Mandrill, and the very rare and endangered Drill, Mandrillus leucophaeus. There is also the Gelada, Theropithecus gelada, which inhabits high mountain meadows in Ethiopia. This is the last survivor of a lineage of baboons that used to be widespread in Africa and even included giant baboons the size of gorillas. I hope to soon write something about them for this column. The baboons as a group are related to the Macaques of North Africa, Europe and Asia, which include many largely terrestrial and frequently short–tailed species, and the Mangabeys, which are more typical long–tailed tree dwelling monkeys restricted to Africa. This group as a whole is more distantly related to the small forest monkeys of Africa, the Guenons (mainly the genus Cercopithecus). Even more distantly related are the leaf–eating monkeys of Africa and Asia, the Colobus, Langur, Snub–nosed and Proboscis Monkeys. And then of course you get the apes, the small apes being the Gibbons of Asia, and the big apes being the Orang–Utan, the Gorillas, the Chimpanzees, and ourselves. Baboons are therefore distant cousins to us, so to speak.

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