BOOKS: Baboons: Tales, Traits & Troubles

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2006:

Baboons: Tales, Traits & Troubles
by Attie Gerber
Lapa Publishers (380 Bosma St., Pretoria, South Africa), 2004.
360 pages, hard cover. 180.95 rand.

Attie Gerber, now a university instructor of video
production and digital photography, cofounded the popular South
African television program 50/50, which has covered ecological
matters for more than 20 years. Baboons: Tales, Traits & Troubles
combines superb photographs with commentary mixing information about
baboons with advice about wildlife photography.
Gerber explores the interaction of Afrikaans and British
settlers with baboons through mentions of baboons in early South
African literature. Hated by farmers for crop-raiding, but
respected for their intelligence, baboons were at times even put to
work. For example, the Cape Argus reported in 1884, a railway
signalman named Jumper lost both legs in an accident, and procured a
baboon he called Jack to assist him. Photographs show Jack operating
the signal levers at Jumper’s instruction.

Much of the book is devoted to baboon social life and
behavior, informed by Gerber’s work alongside Rita Miljo, 74, the
leading South African baboon expert.
Miljo founded her Centre for Animal Rehabilitation in 1980.
CARE now protects more than 300 baboons.
Gerber accompanied two troops of baboons whom Miljo released
into the Vredefort Dome Conservancy, filming them for weeks. Their
story should have had a happy ending, but didn’t, because the South
African government still classifies baboons as vermin, even though
many farmers have amended their views.
The Vredefort Dome was created by the impact of an ancient
meteor. Farmers in the region recently formed the Vredefort Dome
Conservancy, intending to transform the area into a tourist
attraction and to apply for World Heritage status.
In 1998 they asked Miljo to bring some of her rehabilitated
baboons to that area to re-establish a natural baboon population.
Miljo found the Vredefort Dome to be ideal baboon habitat and agreed
to release two troops of fifteen members each.
North-West Province conservation department bureaucrats
managed to delay the baboon release for four long years, requiring
all sorts of veterinary tests on the baboons, and even medical tests
on CARE staff.
In line with CARE’s strict release procedures, every farmer
at the release site was consulted, and all consented to the baboon
reintroduction. Both releases went smoothly. CARE staff stayed with
the troops for four and six months, respectively, until Miljo was
quite satisfied that the baboons could cope on their own.
In October 2003 four females disappeared from the second
troop, and on investigation were found to have been poisoned. A
fifth baboon was poisoned later. Then the troop lost a baby whose
mother had been poisoned. Four sick baboons survived. Complaints
to the provincial conservation authorities elicited little interest
and no results.
In August 2004 a farmer shot the alpha male. The farmer
boasted that he would “kill the lot of the damned animals.”
Miljo asked one of the Dome Conservancy members to recapture
the remaining baboons and keep them safe in an enclosure until she
could be persuaded that the proposed world heritage site was safe for
her baboons. She notified the provincial conservation authorities,
who fined her 750 rand fine for keeping baboons without a permit.
In a separate but parallel case, with a uniquely promising
outcome, Miljo was recently prosecuted for rescuing a baby baboon in
Mpumalanga Province. She was acquitted on September 1, 2005, when
the court recognized that she acted from necessity.
When asked by the prosecutor at her trial in Barberton
Magistrates Court why she wasted her time saving the lives of vermin,
Rita shot back, “Who are you to tell God that he should not have
created baboons?”

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