From raiding neigbours to strategic feeders. The story of a baboon troop

By Massimiliano Lovatelli  @wonderingbeyond

It is probable that you never had a troop of baboons as neighbours. We all love a good story, so let me tell you a Baboon story, or more specifically the story of my neighbours, the Eburru Cliffs troop.

Olive baboon grooming
Image credits to Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Their story began in 1970 when the GilGil Baboon Project, now the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project (UNBP), began a long term research project on Kekopey, a 45,000-acre ranch located half way between Naivasha and Nakuru in Kenya.

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Approximate location of where Kekopey used to be. Image credits Google maps

Kekopey was a Baboon paradise, with plenty of food, water, sleeping sites, and few predators as most of them had been removed to protect livestock. Unfortunately, it all came to an end in 1976 when the ranch owners sold it to a local cooperative, and it was subdivided into 5 acre plots. By 1979, people started to move in. They began to plant crops and make charcoal resulting in human-wildlife conflict: the baboons started raiding crops.

Being primates, baboons are blessed with agility, dexterity, intelligence, and they have hands. Studies showed that eating human food is a smart foraging strategy for baboons, as one maze cob provided the same amount of food eaten up in two hours of natural foraging (Strum et al., 2008).

Eating human food promoted faster growth and reproduction, a set of essential evolutionary and survival traits (Strum, 2010).  But raiding incurred a cost as people responded. If the risk is high enough, baboons tend to return to their natural feeding habits.  As natural habitat on Kekopey was destroyed, the troop began to spend more time in further areas of their home range, on Marula Ranch. In time, they relocated there permanently,  sleeping on the cliffs at Ilkek, probably attracted by the Opuntia stands there. By coincidence, on top of the cliffs, there was also a manager’s house with a delicious veggie garden.

 

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The pictures above, taken in 1991 by Deborah Manzolillo Nightingale, show the Eburru Cliffs troop by the cliffs of Ilkek and a baboon feeding on the Opuntia near the cliffs.

 

The smart troop, now veterans of the raiding arts, started feeding happily on that vegetable garden and even started to break into the kitchen. They became a problem in Marula too, and, after many years of conflict they moved again, away from the cliffs, onto the plains underneath and started to sleep in the big Yellow Fever Acacia trees. I can still see them sometimes coming up the cliffs to feed on the delicious Opuntia. The dogs, however, keep them away from the house and the garden. While they were driven from the area by the dogs, they were also attracted by the toll station on the nearby road. People there were feeding them, and the troop built a particular passion for the nearly empty yoghurt cartons that lorry drivers would throw out of their windows while lining up to pay. What an opportunistic and yet really smart and highly adaptable troop.

What can we learn from the Eburru Cliffs troop’s story?

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A full grown male Olive Baboon. Image credits to A. Hemker

The story of the Eburru Cliffs troop teaches us a lot about human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and the negative influence that humans have on wild animals. Ecosystems and habitats are increasingly ‘domesticated’, leading to increased contact between humans and wildlife and a series of conservation and management challenges. In the case of primates, such interactions involve raiding of human food, as it is more easily accessible and digestible.

There is a clear chain of causality:  if Kekopey had not been subdivided, the baboon troops would have continued coexistence with livestock. One troop ended up in Marula where their behaviour made them unwelcome. Another troop ended up by the GilGil army base where the army threatened to shoot them because they were a nuisance.   Three of the troops were translocated from Kekopey to Laikipia. Luckily for them, baboons are second only to humans in their capacity to adapt to changing conditions, making them highly versatile primates.

A new major report from the WWF indicates that 60% of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970, showing a devastating human impact on the biodiversity of this world (WWF, 2018). Furthermore, in 2014, the president of the UN at the climate change summit said: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it” (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2014). The statement is concerning, but yet an incredibly powerful motivator for those listening and ready to make a change. By destroying natural habitats, and developing so arrogantly we are pushing wildlife to its limits and changing natural behaviours. Furthermore, we are contributing to global warming, which in a vicious cycle has its impact on the decline in biodiversity.

I find one of the best representations of what we are doing to our biodiversity in the work of photographer Nick Brandt, who documents man’s destruction of the natural world.

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Road with elephant, Nick Brandt, 2015
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Wasteland with lion, Nick Brandt, 2015

Is this really the kind of world we want to leave as our legacy to the future generations to come?

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Deborah Manzolillo Nightingale, for sharing the history of the Eburru Cliffs troop and other key information with me that allowed me to write the story of my strange neighbours.

 

References

Greene, C. (2016). Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project – US African Conservation Centre. [online] US African Conservation Centre. Available at: https://www.accafrica-us.org/community-based-wildlife-conservation-in-east-africa/programs/education/uaso-ngiro-baboon-project/

Strum, S. (2005). Measuring success in primate translocation: A baboon case study. American Journal of Primatology, 65(2), pp.117-140.

Strum, S. (2010). The Development of Primate Raiding: Implications for Management and Conservation. International Journal of Primatology, 31(1), pp.133-156.

Strum, S., Manzolillo Nightingale, D., Sandoval, J. and de Jong, Y. (2008). Guess who’s coming to dinner. Swara, [online] pp.24-29. Available at: http://www.baboonsrus.com/resources/PDF_Baboon_Picnic_Swara.pdf

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2014). Remarks by the President at U.N. Climate Change Summit. [online] Available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-un-climate-change-summit

WWF. (2018). Living Planet Report 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/living-planet-report-2018

 

 

 

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