Unique in the Cape Peninsula, the 56 baboons in the Kanonkop troop steer clear of humans. Their other claim to fame? These Table Mountain baboons like sushi. By Melissa Siebert 

Baboons Are Dangerous Wild Animals. Do Not Feed.” So warn signs around the Cape Peninsula where, for the last decade or so, local chacma baboon troops have clashed with humans as development has encroached on their home ranges. Residents in communities particularly susceptible to baboon ‘home invasions’, such as Scarborough, Red Hill and Glencairn, have periodically resorted to paintball guns, slingshots, poison, buckshot and more, to drive the ‘raiders’ away.

Of the Peninsula’s 15 baboon troops, only one, the Kanonkop troop at Cape Point, remains a natural foraging troop. Biologist Matthew Lewis observed them for five months to see how much of their foraging time was spent prying mussels, limpets and the occasional crab or shark’s eggs from the intertidal zones.

“Fynbos here is based in nutrient-poor soil, very old sandstone soils that have been leached over the years, so the baboons’ terrestrial diet is low in nutrients,” said Matthew as we scrambled over a ledge at Gifkommetjie, near one of the troop’s 16 sleeping sites. “We wondered if marine foods might be an important protein supplement for them and, if so, inhibiting the baboons from accessing marine areas could have a large impact.”

Three percent of their time is spent feeding on marine food. When the tide comes in, they are less likely to consume. Wave height is a factor.

– Matthew Lewis

Matthew and three volunteers spent part of a winter, spring, summer, autumn and another winter observing the troop over their 45km² home range. This stretches east to west from the Cape Point entry gate, from near Bright Water and Judas Peak, south to Platboom and Black Rocks. Based in the park at the lighthouse technician’s quarters near the point, the team followed the troop from sleeping site to sleeping site, often for 14-hour days. “We often followed them by sound, such as grunting. Sometimes we could hear them chewing.” Braving the elements, the lanky Matthew lost six kilos in five weeks.

“There was a lot of bundu bashing and hiking off trail. We got rained on, hailed on, and one of the volunteers once got blown over by 95km/h winds. Fieldwork often involved scanning the sleeping sites with binoculars. If you’ve got them at a sleeping site, you’ve got them for the day. If not, it is pretty impossible to find them.”

Matthew pointed to a high ridge in the distance. “We spent a lot of time watching them up there. The sun would catch their fur and create halos.”

Baboon by Matthew Lewis

Baboons usually eat roots, bulbs, fruits, flowers, berries, insects and even small animals. Pictures by Matthew Lewis

A healthy respect for baboons

Critical from the start of his research, he said, was respecting SANParks’ instruction to stay at least 20 metres away from the troop at all times, to minimise their interaction with humans. “My theory as to why this troop doesn’t raid is that their home range does not include nodes of intense human activity. They have some fear of humans, but the humans they usually encounter, such as hikers, surfers and fishers, tend to be aware of baboons. They respect them and have some sense of how dangerous they can be.

“If you keep humans and baboons apart, they can’t become involved in conflict. So baboon management, a team from SANParks, CapeNature, the City of Cape Town and the Baboon Liaison Group made up of local ratepayers, is trying to keep baboons away from urban and suburban areas, and people away from the baboons’ habitat.”

As with any wild animal, offering baboons food starts or continues a slippery slope where the animal becomes acclimatised to humans and develops a taste for food that often we shouldn’t consume ourselves. Baboons’ natural diet is far healthier than chips or cool drinks – typically roots, bulbs, fruits, flowers, berries, insects and small animals. Plus, in the case of the Kanonkop troop, seafood, when they can get it.

Baboon eating mussel by Matthew Lewis

A baboon tucks into a mussel in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park.

Seafood on the menu

As we hiked down to the rocky shore, wild with frothy breakers, Matthew described the seafood-consumption scenario. “The adults grab a mussel and crack it open with their molars. With the small limpets, they put their jaws around the whole thing and pry them off. With larger ones, they bite the top off and use their fingers to scoop it out.”

Their marine foraging is restricted by tides and weather. Also, in the juveniles’ case, lack of finesse. “Three percent of their time is spent feeding on marine food. When the tide comes in, they are less likely to consume. Wave height is a factor. Baboons are fairly good swimmers, but not brilliant, and they run the risk of being washed offshore and drowning. There are records of baboons washing up on shore.”

Three percent sounds negligible, but Matthew explained: “The time is not so significant, because marine food is so rich in protein. The next step is to model their diet and to say how much of their protein is actually coming from this marine food.”

Matthew will be following this line of enquiry in 2016, when he transfers to the University of Cape Town’s archaeology department to take up a post-doctoral research position. “I will be looking into how my studies of baboon diet can help further our understanding of dietary patterns in early humans. Both consumed many of the same food items, including marine food and geophytes like watsonia. Such a comparison could allow us to ground-truth some of the assumptions about early human diet.”

Baboons as strandlopers? It’s a much more appealing image than raiders or “commandos”, as Matthew described one troop in Glencairn.

“I completely understand why people have negative associations with baboons,” he said. “But with the Kanonkop troop I was able to experience baboons not negatively influenced by humans. Unfortunately, the other troops on the Peninsula have evolved into being opportunistic, they go after easy food. Once a baboon has learned stealing behaviour, it is nearly impossible to de-habituate them.”

Matthew’s respect for baboons in the wild is palpable, for their strength, their playfulness and their intelligence. “Their physical strength is staggering,” he said. “One incident comes to mind, when a male was in a fight with another male and got a huge gash on his wrist from the other’s incisors. He tucked in his sore arm and climbed up the sheer cliffs with one hand.

“I love their playfulness. Juveniles do things that human children would never be allowed to do. For instance, a juvenile will be sitting on a rock and other juveniles will come along and grab hold of its tail and swing it around. Baboons are extremely intelligent, borne out in their strict hierarchies and social dynamics.”

We haven’t seen a baboon but, through Matthew, imagined them. Finally in the car on the way out, there they were, the Kanonkop troop. Photographing baboons for commercial purposes is not allowed in Table Mountain National Park, so we merely watched. A large male, his fur seemingly coated in gold dust, was munching the tips of a restio.

“I am totally happy just doing this,” Matthew said, referring to observing the baboons in their natural habitat. Respecting their natural habitat. “I wish others could see them like this.”

Off limits

The filming of baboons in Table Mountain National Park is no longer permitted. For juvenile baboons that have not yet become habituated this is very important because filming activities increases exposure to humans as well as the risk of habituation.