August 13, 2020

Baboons – From the Magaliesberg to the Midlands


 By Karin Saks 

 What is it about nonhuman primates that they are capable of transforming our perception? 

 “I was only truly happy when I was with the baboons. They were my emotional center and an important part of me remained with them even if I was physically distant”; wrote anthropologist Shirley Strum who had been studying olive baboons in Kenya for over forty years at the time. 

 Scientist George Schaller said of gorillas: “The eyes have a language of their own, being subtle and of emotion that in no other visible way affects the expression of the animal. I could see hesitation and uneasiness, curiosity, boldness and annoyance.” 

And when South Africa’s first ethologist, Eugene Marais, moved to the Waterberg in 1905, settling close to a troop of about 300 baboons, he noted that the human psyche like the human body had evolved from the world of primates. 

 An indefinable, internal process seems to occur when long periods of time are spent with nonhuman primates. 

 Baboons in the Magaliesberg

My journey into the world of baboons began in 1997. Then, in 1998, while introducing my first orphaned baby baboon – Gismo - into the wild, I found myself accepted as surrogate mother by the whole troop, bringing me as close as possible to understanding how it feels to be a female, mother baboon.

baboons, baboon rehabilitation, midlands, magaliesberg
Fatso, a wild female grooms me before moving on to Gismo to groom him. Photo: Gareth Patterson 

Gismo’s mother had been shot eight months earlier. I’d carefully nurtured him since, preparing for the day he’d have a chance to be with his own kind, free and wild. Up until that moment, our lives had been entwined; an unconscious mother-child bond had formed. I knew that abandoning Gismo, and the subsequent guilt and fear, would stay with me as long as I lived. But his survival and future with his own kind meant the world to me. 

For most of the rehabilitation process, and due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up alone, reliant on my own judgment to direct the rehabilitation process. I’d been warned that I could place myself and Gismo in danger if I made one wrong move. Not knowing much about rehabilitation at the time, my only choice was to watch and listen to the baboons for guidance. Astonished to discover how directly the baboons communicated with me, I relaxed into relying on them for help. 

 For two weeks I stayed inside a large enclosure observing the interactions between Gismo and his new allies on the outside of the enclosure. I learned their language, making important life-or-death decisions based on their guidance. 

 The rehabilitation proved to be successful and for that I had to thank my new baboon friends. The remarkable manner in which they’d communicated with me had ensured Gismo a safe, secure future with his own kind. 

 This profound experience marked a turning point of my life. Compelled to share what the baboons had taught me, I wrote an article for the Mail and Guardian: Lessons in How to Talk to our Cousins  

From that moment on, I was determined to dedicate my life to breaking down the misconceptions humans have of these primates that share 94% of the same DNA as us.

Baboon hand and foot - Uncannily human

 Today science recognizes our connection to nonhuman primates; taxonomy places us in the same group as the Great Apes.


So close are we to nonhuman primates that they are studied to better understand the human condition in the fields of psychology, evolutionary psychology and biology. 

 After Gismo’s release, I went on to work with baboons in the Magaliesberg and Tsitskamma for close to two decades, spending more time with these primates than my own kind at times. Much to my surprise, in 2009, Firecracker Films, a UK based  company, intrigued by my extraordinary life,  contacted me. The documentary Baboon Woman was aired internationally but not in South Africa where baboons are severely persecuted. 

 Baboon presence has been etched into the African landscape for over two million years. What would happen to the environment if they were eradicated? Sometimes I'd wonder how life would feel if baboons were missing.  

I found out after moving to the midlands in Kwazulu Natal in 2015.

 Baboons in the midlands, Kwazulu Natal 

Baboons appeared to be largely absent. The odd single dispersing male had been seen from time to time; male baboons leave their troops for the first time when sexually mature to move into a new troop for genetic mixing. This process can take about two months. Sadly these dispersing males are particularly vulnerable at this time, are wrongly assumed to be “rogue males” and are sometimes harmed due to this damaging misconception. 

 Valuable work conducted by local conservancies in the midlands has helped preserve this magnificent area that has been highly rated as one having irreplaceable biodiversity. Primates contribute to a healthy biodiversity for a number of reasons with seed dispersal being one of them. The baboon is no exception.  
One morning early in February 2020, while watching the samangos deep in the forest, we heard the unmistakable “where are you” call of a juvenile baboon, then came across a baboon troop in the grasslands above the forest where the samangos foraged. Enraptured to see both primate species, I set up trail cameras to follow their movements. 

February 2020 - Baboons in the midlands, KZN

 Baboon Populations in KZN

 Residents have reported that troops have been absent for over twenty years. A paper published in 2012, suggested that baboon populations in Kwazulu Natal need protection as baboon populations in Kwazulu Natal are estimated to be less that 10% of the expected population size.

Human-wildlife conflict continues to threaten this species; residents target individual baboons and damage troop structures; a baboon troop is made up of close, cohesive groups of family and friends. 

 A baboon troop expresses their distress after an adult female is run over. Her juvenile clings to her body. Photo: Bryan Ashley

As human development continues to encroach on the habitat of wildlife, replacing ancient foraging routes with farms, buildings, roads and electric pylons, wildlife is forced to compete. Baboons are shot at, electrocuted on pylons, trapped for bushmeat and muti (traditional medicine), injured or killed by dogs and run over in various parts of South Africa. 

 We have the choice to change this destructive path.


Long-term Deterrants: 

A couple of electric strands will keep baboons away from attractants that are not food related as well as less favourite foods. Electric fencing needs to be designed specifically for primates. Baboon proof electric fencing may be required to keep baboons from raiding crops of favourite food sources like maize. 

Baboon Monitors

Baboon monitors are trained to keep baboons from wandering onto baboon properties. In the Cape Peninsula, baboon monitors were initially trained to form a line in front of baboon troops, and then run at the baboons, shouting, clapping and waving sticks. This method worked well to keep baboons out.  When the baboons got close to properties where they were unwelcome, the monitors would chase them out again.

The human-baboon interface is particularly difficult due to the fact that 1.development has cut off baboons from moving out of the area hence obstructing single dispersing males from reaching other troops which is necessary for genetic mixing and 2. Tourists have repeatedly fed the baboons by hand, to the extent that baboons on the Cape Peninsula now generalize about humans. This situation is not comparable to other baboon areas in South Africa.

Baboon Diet

Monkeys and Apes feed primarily on plant foods with a small percentage of animal-sourced food making up about 2 percent of the diet. Most of this animal sourced food comes from insects (Harding 1981).  The table below compares the diet of seven chacma baboon populations in Africa illustrating the small percentage of invertebrates in the diet. Although there are reports of baboons killing young antelope in various areas, this is not common behavior : baboons are adaptable opportunists.

Taken from:                    ref


January 08, 2020

Monkeys Visiting Your Home


As development continues to encroach onto wild habitats, people choosing to live in semi-natural environments – farms, smallholdings, seaside villages etc. increasingly need to find environmentally friendly ways of co-existing with wild animals and flora in order to preserve and rehabilitate the natural bio-diversity.
It’s common to assume that primate numbers are not threatened.
Age-old myths serve to justify the persecution of these animals by certain sectors of society and sightings of baboons and monkeys are generally considered to be common.
As a result, it is widely assumed that primates are not potentially threatened. This is an important misconception.
In spite of many primates living in low predator areas, they get shot, poisoned, electrocuted, killed by dogs, caught in snares and trapped for research laboratories and muthi.
Over the years, troops have declined in numbers and troop structures are consistently damaged due to ongoing human developments.

December 30, 2019

Update on the Cape Peninsula Baboons

Update on the Cape Peninsula Baboons
By Karin Saks

In 1990, following the culling of an entire troop of baboons in Kommetjie, the Kommetjie Environmental Awareness Group (KEAG) was formed. Through the efforts of KEAG, the Baboon Management Team was started, which essentially involved all the relevant authorities to find management options for resolving conflicts between humans and baboons on the southern peninsula of Cape Town (Mail and Guardian, January, 2005).
Based on population censuses from 1998 and 1999 (Kansky and Gaynor 2000) which showed an apparent high birth and mortality rate coupled with a highly skewed adult male to female ratio, it was suggested that  the baboon population was under severe human predation pressure and therefore in need of management intervention (Beamish, E.K. 2009). In her booklet, Baboons on the Cape Peninsula, 2002, Kansky described the Cape Peninsula population as critically endangered (according to Red Data list criteria) as there were less than 250 mature individuals left.
Age/sex ratios of the Cape Peninsula were recorded between 2005 and 2008 showing that 66% of the troops had one or no adult males due to high mortality in the late 1990’s leading to a skew in the male to female ratio at 1:8. Humans were seen to be responsible for the skewed adult sex ratio which resulted in a higher alpha male turnover and increased rate of infanticide (Kansky and Gaynor 1999; Peterson pers.comm. 2008).

November 30, 2018

Why We Need to Protect Vervet Monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus pygerythrus)

Juvenile vervet monkey killed by a resident in Hartebeespoort Dam, North West Province, South Africa.

An unspeakable act of cruelty made its way onto social media in November, 2018 bringing attention to the killing of vervet monkeys (impaled on a steel fence) by a well known doctor and wildlife collector in Hartebeespoort Dam, North West Province, South Africa.

November 02, 2018

The Life of Bipod - Vervet Monkey Missing Two Limbs

vervet monkey, darwin primate group, samango monkey, primates, sykes monkey, blue monkey,
Bipod - Female Vervet Missing an Arm and a Leg

Bipod, a female vervet monkey, missing one arm and one leg manages to keep up with her troop. Our trail cameras have captured a number of videos of her interacting with members from her group and the samango monkeys that share their territory. The following trail camera footage documents some of Bipod's adventures.

October 27, 2018

Allies - Vervet and Samango Monkeys

Not wanting to disturb the samango and vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis labiatus and Chlorocebus pygerythrus pygerythrus) crossing the paddock to reach the Forest Fig (Ficus craterostoma), we sat over fifty metres away with our cameras.  

December 07, 2017

May 12, 2017

Dogs and Baboons



For years I’ve lived harmoniously with dogs, cats, monkeys and baboons. I’ve shared my “territory” with six different raiding baboon troops in various parts of South Africa forcing me to find ways to live in peace with these animals while finding the peace of mind needed to know the dogs and cats that lived with me would be safe.

The juvenile baboons in the wild baboon troop were particularly interested in forming friendly relationships with my cats... 

The wild resident baboon troops have always shown respect for the animals that live with me, including the free-roaming rescued,  vervet monkeys that lived in the forest around my home. The video at the end of this post shows how three different primate species lived peacefully together. This is merely one example taken from a time in my life when I was rehabilitating injured and orphaned vervet monkeys.

April 13, 2017

Misconceptions about Baboons

The following info has been taken from: - a site that offers information from a scientific viewpoint. 

Misconceptions about Baboons

Below are some things we've heard people say about baboons in South Africa....and some answers based on current scientific knowledge.

October 07, 2015

The Argument Against Consumptive Sustainable Use:

The Argument Against Consumptive Sustainable Use:

Karin Saks

Is it possible to promote the idea of wildlife as a commodity that may be traded, controlled, hunted, subjected to untold cruel practices in the name of biomedical research and entertainment, yet simultaneously expect this practice to foster a respect for wildlife and the environment?

May 06, 2015

Old Africa and the Environment

Once upon a time in Africa, people understood that us humans are not above all other animals but equal to them. And so the time has come for us to reflect on the past, present and look deeply to find a solution to the damage we have caused.

February 01, 2015

Baboons in Africa - Misunderstanding their Language

A Researcher working in Uganda contacted me some time ago to ask if I could help her understand what was happening to the villagers in her area; a group of the women were being "sexually harassed" by a troop of baboons. These "attacks" occurred when the women headed towards the river to do their daily clothes washing.

June 01, 2013

DPG orphan baboons with the wild baboon troop.

Recently, I've been  going through all the footage I've taken over the last years. This clip is a short and summarised view of the baboon orphans in my care when I first introduced them to the wild troop.