Teeth bared in battle for baboon control

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By John Yeld

Cape Town - British statesman Winston Churchill is credited with the famous aphorism “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, made at a White House luncheon in June 1954. And the SPCA had something similar in mind when it hosted its all-day Baboon Welfare Meeting in Tokai, Cape Town, this week.

While strong disagreements over how to manage the Peninsula’s baboon troops may not have reached actual “warfare” yet, opponents have come close to exchanging blows at times, and charges and counter-charges of intimidation have been laid.

The opening salvos in a legal battle, if not a war, over the killing of “problem” baboons have already been fired.

So the SPCA called for the full-day dialogue in an attempt to reduce tensions and find some common ground.

Facilitator Marlene Laros said baboon management was “a very significant issue”.

“A really good outcome will be if we all understand each other – we’re not trying to come up with an agreed outcome.”

Disagreements are acute following the introduction of a new baboon management protocol by the three statutory authorities involved – CapeNature, City of Cape Town and SA National Parks.

The protocol is being applied by the service provider, Human Wildlife Solutions, which won the new baboon management contract a few months ago.

At issue are “aversion” techniques being applied to drive, and keep baboons out of urban areas, such as the use of paintball guns and “bear-bangers”, and – specifically – the killing of baboons (mostly adult males) considered to be habitual raiders in urban areas, and a threat to human welfare and safety.

Some animal activists and baboon conservationists are strongly opposed to these methods, and are questioning in particular whether killing is necessary to achieve the protocol’s intended goals, and whether the protocol is being applied as prescribed.

But the authorities, official representatives of residents and civic groups in the Far South (the Baboon Liaison Group), researchers and the SPCA are all in favour of the new strategy.

Questions at the meeting included: “Is euthanasia] of ‘problem’ baboons reducing raiding?”, “Is data from the baboon management service provider and researchers accurate?” and “How is the effectiveness and efficacy of baboon management methods tracked?”.

Brett Glasby, head of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA’s wildlife unit, said the main reason for the meeting was “to get everyone talking on the same page”.

“For me it’s all criticism, criticism, criticism – there’s no going forward. The reality is that sometimes euthanasia is necessary. If you don’t agree, come with a realistic, pragmatic solution.

“Let’s try and set forward some real solutions, instead of criticisms,” he implored.

The new protocol does appear to be working, at least judging by the number of calls to the “Baboon Hotline”.

Dr Phil Richardson, head of Human Wildlife Solutions, told the meeting that in September last year there’d been 158 raid-related calls, and 120 in October. In the same two months this year, those numbers had dropped to 55 and 48 respectively.

Analysing the calls during October, Richardson said 57 percent were to report baboons in urban areas, 6 percent complained of baboons raiding rubbish bins, 4 percent were about baboons attacking pets, 12 percent were about baboons raiding an occupied house, 2 percent were about baboons “breaking and entering” a house, and 15 percent were about baboons threatening or attacking people.

“That is really unacceptable behaviour,” he said.

He believed it had been a management error in the past not to have baboons removed that attacked and terrorised people, and that taught such behaviour to other baboons as it becomes a “self-perpetuating system”.

Richardson also said his company had received “numerous” letters, phone calls and e-mails praising and thanking them for their efforts.

“People are saying they can live again, they can garden again, their children can cycle to visit them – all because of our use of paintball guns and, I admit, euthanasia,” he said.

At Da Gama Park – one of the major problem areas – no baboons had been killed. But the use of paintball guns had kept the troop out of this area completely since the beginning of the month.

Two “very bad raiders” had been removed from the main Scarborough troop in late July, and since August not a single baboon had been in the village.

And Richardson pointed out that almost one third of all the reported raids had involved two Tokai baboons, TK21 and TK22, which have now been killed.

“The selective removal of baboons is highly effective, and I believe the figures (for raids) will now have been drastically reduced.”

He suggested that while baboons caused minimal physical harm to people, the psychological harm could be significant, particularly for children who could be traumatised.

“If you like baboons, there’s no problem. But some people are petrified of them and you do huge psychological damage. I don’t think that is acceptable.”

City of Cape Town veterinarian Dr Elzette Jordan added that one couldn’t ignore the welfare issue of people involved.

Richardson said no one involved enjoyed killing baboons.

“That’s generally accepted. But I think personally that if a baboon physically jumps on to you and tries to remove your backpack or tries to remove your food, that’s against human rights,” he argued.

Simon Jamieson, chairman of the Baboon Matters Trust conservation group, which is a former management service provider, said there was a lack of trust between all the groups involved because of a lack of information: “For me, that’s what needs to be built.”

The trust had not been able to get sufficient information to judge whether the management protocol was working, and to hold managers accountable to make sure the animals were not being killed unnecessarily.

“We don’t see the protocol being followed properly… We find our time is spent trying to get information… Show us the decision-making process for the killing of the baboons. There’s no accountability, we’re back to that again,” he said.

The trust’s Jenni Trethowan said the group wanted documented proof that killing male baboons was the reason for the improved situation.

She pointed out that during 2008 the group had been 98 percent effective in keeping baboons out of urban areas.

“We used the men effectively, no baboons were killed and there were no paintball guns,” she said.

She agreed that the current service provider had experienced “a fantastic run”, but questioned the reasons for this, saying that the previous killing of baboons had resulted in “no significant difference” in the amount of raiding.

Baboon activist Ushka Mrjkusic, of Scarborough, was blunt and accused the authorities of “insisting on imposing their viewpoints”, and of providing incorrect data.

“We don’t trust what they say… I am extremely distrustful of the statistics and the methodology.”

Associate professor and head of UCT’s Baboon Research Unit, Justin O’Riain, described mistrust as “the elephant in the room”.

“A member of the public says ‘I don’t trust the scientists.’ It’s an issue. It’s why we don’t get anywhere,” he said.

Laros said to applause from the activists: “The issue is about data being shared. It’s an important principle.”

Davin Chown, of the Baboon Matters Trust, accused the authorities of “intimidating” citizens who tried to get information. This “exacerbated” existing mistrust, he suggested.

“I don’t think this builds trust, it works completely the opposite.”

Chown also complained that the baboon management authorities were not held sufficiently accountable, and that attempts to get information from them had resulted in “a raft of patronising replies”.

“As a citizen of South Africa who pays my taxes, I demand a level of accountability… I’m still not convinced that killing animals will resolve this issue,” he said.

Richardson said the new protocol had been followed in the past three months that his company had been operating, and that this was documented.

O’Riain pointed out the protocol had been approved by the Baboon Liaison Group, and his research unit and international experts.

Trethowan countered: “However galling it may be to scientists and administrators, we’re allowed to ask questions, end of story.

“It’s our constitutional right. It’s our right to ask the authorities ‘What happened to this and why weren’t mitigating factors taken into account in this instance?’”

Jamieson argued that aversion techniques, like paintball guns, had to be used in conjunction with other methods such as the enforcement of the city’s by-laws, fines for transgressors, and education.

“That’s what we would really like to push… We can move mountains, let’s do it for the baboons.”

And “concerned citizen” Fran Meyer said everyone had to remember that the protocol was “just a piece of paper”, and proposed that it be looked at again. “We’re dealing with the lives of fellow creatures on this planet,” she said.

There was some conciliatory talk during the meeting, but it seems probable that it was just a temporary truce in what threatens to be a very drawn-out, and debilitating conflict. - Cape Argus

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