Baboons in the Savannah - Life in the Troop
Baboons are large terrestrial monkeys confined to Africa. The number of species is disputed, with some authors lumping the Guinea, chacma, olive and yellow baboon as a single species - the 'savanna baboon' - while others regard them as four distinct species. Anatomically and behaviourally, the four are very similar, it is primarily the colour and length of the coat which distinguishes them. There is some overlap in their ranges where hybridisation occurs.
The hamadryas or sacred baboon belongs to the same genus - Papio - and shares some traits with the Guinea baboon, including living in small family groups rather than large troops. The sacred baboon occurs in the arid reaches of the Horn of Africa.
Life in the troop
Baboons live in troops which usually number between 20 and 80 individuals, though bigger groups of well over 100 are known. The troops consist of several 'kinship' groups of adult females and their generations of offspring, as well as a number of mature, sexually-active males.
There is a definite hierarchy among the females and the males, with individual males generally having exclusive 'rights' to certain kinship groups. Immature males are tolerated within the troop until they reach five years of age, after which they attempt to link up with neighbouring troops of unrelated females. Here, they will strive to become dominant, but it will not be until they are 7 to 9 years old that they will be taken seriously by the females.
Safety in numbers
An individual adult male baboon is a formidable animal and need fear only lions and the largest of male leopards. When two or more male baboons are together, even these predators usually give them a wide berth. This partial immunity from predation is what has allowed baboons to develop a terrestrial lifestyle, although constant vigilance is required to keep the young out of danger.
Baboons frequently forage alongside antelope, giraffe and zebra, as the acute hearing of these herbivores provides an early warning device against predators. At night, all baboons are severely disadvantaged against large predators, so troops roost in large trees or on rock faces. In contrast to baboons, all other African monkeys (with the exception of the fleet-footed Patas Monkey) are arboreal - foraging out of reach of terrestrial predators.
A varied diet
As with most other primates - man included - baboons are omnivorous, eating both vegetable and animal matter. The troop forages in a loose pack, digging up succulent rhizomes, turning over rocks in search of grubs or scorpions, gorging themselves on ripe fruit, or wading into swamps for waterlily tubers. Elephant dung is thoroughly searched for beetles and their larvae.
The males are equipped with enormous canine teeth and though these are used primarily in ritualised displays of dominance, they are occasionally turned to more practical use. Antelope fawns and hares are preyed upon whenever the opportunity presents itself, and there is some evidence that certain males can become practised killers.
Being such intelligent animals, baboons take readily to stealing food from human beings, and can become quite a nuisance at camps and picnic sites. In most cases, it is eventually necessary to enlist one or more 'baboon chaser' whose job it is to keep the eventually demanding and sometimes, aggressive primates at bay.
The drill and mandrill are the forest counterparts of the savanna baboons. They also live in large troops and possess a similar social system with dominant males at the top of the hierarchy.
The drill is one of Africa's most threatened mammals, and faces extinction in its last refuge, Cameroon. Here it has been displaced by clear-felling of tropical rainforest and hunting for bush meat.
The Mandrill, with its bizarre technicolour face, occurs in larger numbers over a wider range, but is still greatly endangered due to forest clearing and hunting for bush meat.
Where to see baboons at CCAfrica lodges
Baboons are present throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, and can be seen in the vicinity of all CCAfrica lodges. Perhaps the best viewing is in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park, where olive baboon troops may number up to 200! Numerous troops hold foraging ranges within this narrow wildlife reserve, occupying habitats as diverse as sheer cliff faces, mahogany forests and saline lake shore are guaranteed of close encounters and great photographic opportunities. Large troops of chacma baboon are to be seen at Matetsi Game Lodges in Zimbabwe, while smaller numbers can be seen in the beautiful mountain landscape of Bongani Mountain Lodge in South Africa.
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006