Did you know?
Writer Eugene Marais noticed that at sunset, a baboon troop appears melancholy – he called it 'Hesperian Depression'.
Looking like a cross between a dog and a monkey, baboons are unmistakable. They are also startlingly intelligent.
In addition, according to Richard D Estes, author of the authoritative The Safari Companion, a baboon troop is '1 of the most complex, subtle societies in the animal kingdom'.
If you find a troop of these primates foraging, with babies playing and youngsters wrestling each other, set aside some time to watch them from a discreet distance.
You’ll see some being arrogant, others currying favour, a few being ignored, babies being fussed over and passed around to be snuggled, and teenagers pushing the boundaries. Human society in miniature, you might eventually conclude.
Primatologist Dave Gaynor says humans and baboons have much in common. Both are extreme generalists, able to survive on a vast variety of food. And both have a high degree of social intelligence.
'Baboons have a wide repertoire of deception, ways of manipulation, recognising social position and advantage, leveraging for rank, and seeking out coalitions,' he says.
Baboons are found in most parts of South Africa, and it’s unusual not to find them in a nature reserve or national park. They are extremely adaptable and essentially omnivorous.
They’ll eat tubers, buds, roots, flowers, seeds, sap, mushrooms, lichens, rhizomes, grasshoppers, scorpions, shellfish, lizards, nestlings, small rodents and fish. They’ll even kill baby antelope if they get a chance.
In the Cape of Good Hope section of the Table Mountain National Park, baboons eat plenty of seafood – limpets, shark eggs, cuttlefish, whatever they can scrounge along the shoreline. It’s these particular baboons that are giving primatologists pause for thought.
By eating Omega 3-rich brain food, are they getting smarter? After all, some anthropologists say that humans became more intelligent by doing exactly that.
Who knows? What can be said, though, is that watching them is fascinating.
Just never feed them, because it takes only one incident for a baboon to figure out that humans are linked with good food. And that just leads to trouble, often resulting in the baboon having to be killed because it threatens people and raids houses and cars.
Baboons are widespread, so you’ll see them in most game reserves, but they’re certainly not limited by fences. You’ll also see them at the side of the road.
In such cases, exercise caution. Don’t get out of your car and leave it open, especially if you have food inside. You should also keep your windows mostly up and even your doors locked as in places like Cape Point and the Kruger National Park, baboons have been known to jump into cars. The dominant males especially have large teeth and a dangerous bite.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tours to do
If you’re close to the Kruger National Park, you may want to head off to the CARE baboon sanctuary (Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) near Phalaborwa. Here baboons that have been orphaned, hurt or had negative experiences with humans are cared for. CARE is always looking for volunteers.
Another place you're almost guaranteed to see baboons is at Cape Point outside Cape Town.
Length of stay
Set aside at least half an hour to an hour to watch a baboon troop if you’re interested in them. You’ll see all kinds of interactions between them. These are fascinating beasts. Remember, observe them from your car and never offer them food.
What to pack
Bring along your camera and binoculars.