Shifting Primate Perceptions by Karin Saks

Shifting Primate Perceptions


Karin Saks and Rhiannon


1 june-14 june 2007
By Karin Saks
Precious and enduring lessons have come my way during my time spent with our close primate cousins. Whether Louis Leakey’s (the anthropologist who supported the work of Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas) view that women make better primate watchers than men is discriminatory or true, his premise that women are less likely to incite aggression in male primates is particularly valid. An understanding of the vastly different ways in which non-human primates relate to men
and women is necessary for developing a clear conception of primate behaviour.
An orphaned baboon named Gismo, whose mother had been shot, was brought to me in 1997. Before he was old enough to be rehabilitated back into the wild, I cared for him as surrogate mother. Even at that young age, he related to men and women differently, thus teaching my male partner and myself how to parent him in
ways that placed us in different roles.
Eight months later, it was time to release Gismo into a wild troop. For the first time, I was exposed to the complex social life of wild baboons as they accepted me as mother of the newcomer. I watched how male aggression, provoked by the presence of men, changes the behaviour of the troop, showing the observer a particular facet of behaviour that tends to dominate the whole. How did this effect
the conclusions drawn by male primatologists, and which primate studies were necessary to gain a full impression of primate behaviour? I decided to read both, and along with all that the baboons taught, draw my own conclusions.
With enormous generosity of spirit, Gismo’s new baboon friends directed the release process, aware of our reasons for being there. A crash course in baboon language was necessary to the success of
the release; I read the clues each individual offered while forming a relationship with my foster child. What they showed about the inner nature of wild primates changed my life; it was the start of a long
process where I imperceptibly touched a lost part of the self – a part lost through civilisation and our self imposed separation from the rest of Nature.
After nearly a decade along this primate path, I believe that the Vervet (monkeys) and Chacma (baboons) have further aided my understanding of our relationship to the environment, culminating in the theory that we are not one species above but one species
amongst all others, and that conservation when focusing simply on serving people and less on biodiversity is unlikely to achieve
successful long term initiatives. A feminine perspective of the environment is still less apparent than a male one. Developing poorer countries where socio-economic, or religious and cultural factors have influenced the scarcity of African and Asian women in
primate conservation in the past, have been fortunate in having the knowledge of Leakey’s “angels”.
Since democracy in 1994, South Africa has been slowly moving away from a patriarchal society. The battle to eradicate poverty and remove inequity jostles for top position with environmental degradation and the effects of global warming.
Floods and droughts brought about through climate change have found wildlife struggling to adapt to changing ecosystems that are also responsible for rural Africans increasingly moving to towns,
highlighting the fragile relationship between humankind and eco-systems. In areas where humans live side by side with wild animals, and resources are competed for, ongoing conflict between humans and wild animals has escalated. The Vervet monkey and Chacma Baboon are merely two species that continue to be shot, poisoned and captured as human habitats encroach further on their territories.
These primates are listed on Appendix two of C.I.T.E.S., yet their populations are not officially monitored; reports reveal escalating damage to troop structures as well as dwindling numbers. If this trend
continues, our primates face extinction.
Amongst the troops in my area, where male baboons are targeted by humans, there appears to be a severe skew in the adult male/female ratio, a factor responsible for a negative ripple effect throughout all baboon society here as well as their relationship to their human neighbours.
The war between humans and baboons began when the Dutch arrived on the Cape Peninsula in 1652. Prior to this, the
indigenous Khoisan people existed peacefully with their wild neighbours. They understood baboon language, learnt about
medicinal plants from them and never killed them for food. In order to halt the destruction of our primate populations here, we need to revert back to harmonious co-existence with wildlife. Having lived in three different homes that were raided by baboons, I’ve come to understand that co-existence is possible, that tolerance and understanding is integral to constructive change. And the view that we are blessed to still live alongside our wild neighbours is important to understanding our human relationship to the rest of Nature from which we are separated.
Since 1997, Karin Saks has been involved in the rehabilitation of orphaned and injured baboons and monkeys and has worked
towards a harmonious co-existence between these primates and humans. The book, Life With Darwin, released in 2003 by Penguin
Books and written by Dutch author, Fransje van Riel outlines Karin’s work.


1 june-14 june 2007


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