Kruger baboon gangs in smash and grab
Movie franchise 'Planet of the Apes' may not be fiction after all
“Hit and run” raids by brazen baboon gangs are giving Kruger National Park staff a headache – with some of the primates now using rocks to smash glass windows when grabbing food from tourist camps.
“Keeping baboons out of the camps is very difficult – even though we have electrified fences. They are very clever and find ways of getting in,” says Danie Pienaar, head of scientific services at SA National Parks.
Responding to questions at a public meeting in Durban earlier this month on the Kruger park’s draft management plan for the next 10 years, Pienaar said densities of several “damage-causing animals”, including baboons, tended to be higher around tourist camps because of the availability of easy snacks.
“It is not just the rubbish bins in the visitor camps and picnic areas. We also have vegetable gardens in some of the camps that attract a variety of wild animals.”In the main camp, Skukuza, troops of human-habituated vervet monkeys were now permanent residents, he said.
“The baboons also teach each other how to break into staff houses and tourist camps and, apart from their intelligence, they are also really strong.
“Some have learned to use stones to smash windows or how to force doors off the sliding hinges ... But when we go after them, they just come back with better ‘hit-and-run’ tactics.”
While staff tried as far as possible to chase away baboons or vervet moneys using “mild methods”, Pienaar suggested there was sometimes no alternative but to destroy them in cases where they bit visitors or caused persistent damage.
During a recent visit to the park’s Shingwedzi camp, this writer saw two large male baboons working in tandem to foil visitors and SANParks staff who pursued them on foot or by vehicle after one of the baboons bit through the walls of a canvas tent in search of food.
As one baboon kept watch from a tall tree, his accomplice loped through the camp searching for an easy meal in the tents and rondavels. When visitors gave chase, the muscular primate sprinted casually towards the fence line and – with seemingly effortless dexterity – hauled itself into a tree and shot over the fence without touching the electrified wire strands.
Minutes later they were back, and the presence of a camp guard armed with a catapault seemed to serve as little deterrent.
According to the latest Kruger park management plan, staff will try to promote “greater awareness, transparent and efficient communication, consistency in decision-making, and a structured, professional and ethical approach to human-wildlife conflict management”.
The document notes that conflict between wildlife and humans happens worldwide and is likely to escalate as protected areas are increasingly surrounded by developed and cultivated areas where people and wildlife compete for space and resources.“Over time there has been an increase in the contact between visitors and animals, due to access and availability of food to animals directly, in the form of littering or enticing animals to come closer to them, or indirectly, in the form of leaving food unattended.
“This has resulted in some animals, particularly baboons and monkeys, becoming habituated and subsequently losing their fear of humans. This situation has also resulted in these animals acting aggressively to get their food directly from humans or from their storage facilities, thereby causing damage in some cases to both humans and property.”
Because some visitors feed the wildlife, bird species such as glossy starlings and hornbills have become a nuisance at rest camps and picnic spots, where they are now bold enough to raid food from plates while visitors are eating.
At a recent Southern African Wildlife Management Association symposium, behavioural ecologist Philip Richardson and colleagues outlined the progress of recent experiments to deter baboons in the Cape Peninsula area using “virtual fences” and “landscapes of fear”.
He said some baboon management strategies, using rangers with paintball markers, were labour-intensive and expensive.
Richardson said the Human Wildlife Solutions group had developed a virtual fence to control baboons from entering certain urban areas in the Western Cape.
The virtual fence is based on the principle of creating a “landscape of fear” which baboons are reluctant to cross. The imaginary fence was made up of hidden, remotely-operated, action stations which were capable of firing bear-banger flares or triggering loudspeakers to broadcast a selection of fearsome sounds, including lion and other predator calls or the cries of animals in distress.