December 01, 2009


One of the most pervasive threats facing wild primates are the misconceptions that have been handed down through the centuries. Take the example of baboons being thought to be far more dangerous than they are. Baboons are not predators, do not generally kill other animals for food (1.*Baboons on the Cape Peninsula by Ruth Kansky), and there is allegedly only one account of a human dying from a baboon attack. While they have the weapons to inflict damage on others, these weapons are used to intimidate non-violently more often than not.
Generally baboons practice enormous restraint. The sight of a large adult male displaying, running fast, hair on end, breaking branches and wa-hooing is a formidable scene, sending shivers of fear through the bravest of us. This display is intended to intimidate and is used to attain a goal usually from others within the troop. It is rare for violence to be involved. Baboons do not go out of their way to attack dogs and will generally tolerate chasing dogs that do not pose a threat to the group, even playing with them. But when you are the “owner” of a much loved dog, the sight of a big baboon reacting by chasing the dog away, usually evokes a magnified fear that the dog will be hurt. Large dogs seriously intent on hurting baboons may be attacked and packing dogs will be treated as a serious threat, but on the whole, baboons practice tolerance, not going further than a mere threat designed to warn the dog not to get too close.
I was reminded of the tremendous restraint practiced by baboons recently when a wild troop came close to a territory long inhabited by a vervet monkey group. It’s commonly believed that when monkeys and baboons are forced to compete over resources, the monkeys will give way.
While young baboons and monkeys may play together, when resources are truly low and these two species are forced to compete, monkeys have allegedly sometimes been killed. In this case the alpha male vervet threatened the alpha male baboon who moved off slowly then sidled up to a few monkeys close by and threatened them instead. This is common primate language: “if I can’t go after you, I’ll go after someone close to you”. It is akin to blackmail.
But the surprising aspect of this redirected threat is it showed that the baboon was accepting a submissive position in relation to the alpha vervet – he was accepting that the vervets had first access to the territory and food it contained. The motive when translated states; “I am going to frighten you into handing over your food”. We forget to notice the restraint practiced by baboons, assuming instead that an intimidating threat will likely lead to harm. In this case, while the baboon could easily have grabbed any of these monkeys and caused serious damage, he chose not to. He was pushing his luck, trying to get food, as all opportunistic primates tend to do. But he gave way, moved off and left the vervets to eat in peace.
While we need to be vigilant about not cornering or threatening a baboon that has entered a home, by using passive body language and ensuring there is an escape route, we also need to remember not to panic and to understand that unless severely threatened, it is highly unlikely a baboon has reason to attack.
*1. Baboons are highly adaptive and some troops in certain areas are known to kill young antelopes. This is an adaptation.