Above: Darwin, an orphan baby baboon accepted by the wild troop that would come past our home in Broederstroom.
Our rehabilitation centres in South Africa have a backlog of primates where hundreds of primates remain in captivity for years. Without protective legislation and a diminishing habitat, full rehabilitation is fraught with risk.
The main concerns of the D.P.G are to work towards long term changes that will provide a safer environment for our primates. Rescue and rehabilitation is an aspect of this but until better circumstances exist for our wildlife, rehabilitation remains a band aid for a much deeper problem.
The following article was written after I’d rehabilitated Gismo – an orphan – back into the wild in 1998. At the time, the only options that were presented to me by the rehabilitation centre where he’d come from, were to take him to the centre once the fostering period was over. This would have ensured he would be put together with other babies and would remain there for years.
Some baboons have been there for over twenty years living in an enclosure. Unable to accept this captivity option, I looked elsewhere, determined to find a way to return him back into the wild. The story below was published after the release. Not having had much experience at the time, the success of this rehabilitation is something Gismo and I owe entirely to the baboon troop who accepted him. (One rehabilitator who I had hoped to be able to ask about things, had been called away to work, leaving Gismo and I to find our own way.)
I say this to illustrate the immense potential of this species to communicate across species barriers and direct the manner in which this release would go. It gave me an insight into baboon life that remains an exceptionally precious memory to this day.
I’d had no previous rehabilitation experience, had had no contact at all with the owner of the rehab centre who had passed him on to me, and had never visited this centre to see what they do. By following the troop’s lead – the communication they made perfectly clear, every step of the release led to what was to become a life of freedom for Gismo. (This was monitored for a year after the release.)
Gismo and rehabilitation back into the Wild
Article published in Mail and Guardian 1998
By Karin Saks
Scientist George Schaller wrote of gorillas: “The eyes have a language of their
own – being subtle and of emotion that in no other visible way affects the
expressions of the animal. I could see hesitation and uneasiness, curiosity and
boldness and annoyance.” He believed it was impossible to observe other species,
and especially other primates, without interpreting their behaviour in human
terms. After all, we humans are primates too.
I’d recently fostered Gismo – an orphaned baby
baboon – for almost eight months. I was delighted when Damian van Gas – a baboon rehabilitator at a reserve called Mosdene – gave me the opportunity to rehabilitate Gismo back into the
He would join a troop of baboons – comprised of 17 individuals – which had been
successfully released more than three years earlier. Rehabilitation, if successful, would
be the perfect answer to Gismo’s uncertain future – previously there had been
suggestions that he be put into an enclosure at a rehab centre.
While it is necessary for a rehabilitator to interact with the baboons to some
extent, keeping them away from humans and their associations – dwellings,
vehicles, crops – is an important factor of rehabilitation. The Mosdene troop
had been released far from human habitation, they were protected by the privacy
of the reserve and had not proved to be “problematic”. Most of them had
experienced the best and worst aspects of human behaviour, and were well aware
of the dangers they could pose.
The analysis of DNA molecules, which carry hereditary traits, has shown that
humans, chimpanzees and bonobos share more than 99% of the same make-up. But
until the 1960s science followed the lead of Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus,
who was initially responsible for placing humans and other primates in separate
categories. He later came to regret this decision and admitted having created a
separate slot for humans for the sake of the church, in spite of the fact that
he did not know of any generic characteristics separating humans and apes.
I found that human language, print and other media, as well as the dysfunctional
primate representatives held in captivity in zoos and research laboratories
proved inadequate when it came to painting a picture of baboon life. First-hand
interaction with the Mosdene troop and the inevitable consequences of the
rehabilitation process – developing relationships with individuals and observing
troop dynamics – gave me a totally different insight.
Shirley C Strum, an American anthropologist who spent more than a decade
observing an olive baboon troop, found she had to discard many of her academic
notions because they conflicted with the lessons the baboons themselves taught.
After spending time with the baboons, I realised that the fear of being
anthropomorphic – projecting human attributes on to animals who don’t share
those attributes – severely stunts our perception of primate life. Ironically,
using human words as opposed to baboon language when describing baboon life is,
in itself, peculiarly anthropomorphic. Our closeness to other primates confuses
the issue further.
Because the study of the emotions and psychology of animals can be filled with
projections, these important areas were initially ignored by scientists (for the
sake of convenience) in favour of more accessible factual information. As a
result, science came to deny animals many of their most relevant attributes.
Ethologist Konrad Lorenz complained that “one of the most customary and
hackneyed objections to which ethologists have to listen is that humans are
unique”. We humans are limited in truly grasping the psychological and emotional
lives of other species, due to our conceit and self- imposed status of
privilege. If it is anthropomorphic to attribute human characteristics to
animals, it is chauvinistic not to attribute human traits to animals who have
Baboon language is expressed through a series of facial expressions, sounds and
gestures punctuated with emotion – a system ranging in intensity that is
uncannily similar to our own non-verbal communication. Because of this shared
understanding, it soon became effortless to interact with individuals in the
troop. I learnt to adopt social strategies in much the same way that the baboons
did to achieve their goals within the complex hierarchal structure of the group.
My motivation was a stressless release for Gismo.
Currently classified as “problem animals”, baboons are not protected. Once
branded as “vermin”, they have been indiscriminately shot, poisoned, trapped for
use in laboratories and culled. If, as many people seem to believe, conservation
must first serve the betterment of humans, we have to deny our dependent,
symbiotic relationship with animals – a separatist attitude that will surely
destroy ourselves along with all else. How can it not?
The rehabilitation of baboons can teach us much about the rehabilitation of more
endangered primates. Yet how stable is the population of baboons? The Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) lists baboons under
Appendix II, which means they are regarded as a species that could become
endangered if trade is not controlled. But in spite of the strict requirements
imposed by Cites, no monitoring of baboon populations and their habitat is done
in South Africa.
As a result of ignorance, baboons are progressively facing eradication. The
general apathy about this state of affairs was illustrated when Minister of
Environmental Affairs and Tourism Pallo Jordan gave the go-ahead last year for
the exportation of more than 80 baboons to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Rehabilitation is a necessary procedure to counteract the destructive impact of
human interference in the natural world. Having had little interaction with his
own kind, Gismo at first resisted becoming a full member of the Mosdene troop,
although many of the individuals persisted in changing this. As the days passed,
he gained confidence and formed stronger, sustainable bonds, and eventually –
after nine days of slow interaction – assumed the full mantle of baboon life.
I parted with him confident that his social and nutritional needs were finally
being met. He was consistently engaged in mutual grooming, bonding and play
activities. He’d been adopted into a sub-group and now had a mother, Dotty, and
three of her consort partners – the paternalistic Grobler, Rat and Alfred E –
for fathers. Added to these “family” figures were a number of juvenile
playmates, as well as a few adult allies. He’d quickly picked up the
communicative skills required for smooth interaction.
Today, Gismo is a fully accepted member, surviving alongside his own kind, free
in the wild.
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without prior written consent