Sunday, October 4

The Real Africa Feeling

We trekked up the mountainside a few days ago but we couldn't fine the usual troop, so we pushed a bit further up and ran into another. This troop behaves a bit differently from the main troop, as I'll explain later, and as a result we don't enjoy studying them as much. We didn't have a lot of choice here, as otherwise it would have been a waste of a day, so we went on ahead with the plan.
In spite of the downsides, there are some great parts about working with troop 2. You're much more up in the wilds of the region, and those places are incredible scenic. There are houses and fences and  people around the lower areas. Up where troop 2 sleeps, the only people you see are bikers, and the only house I've seen is this one:
Finding housing has been difficult for some of the field researchers lately, so we joked about the possibilities of living here.

It must have been an amazing place when it was still standing, considering the views that remain.
Africa: A Story Told in Pictures
As it happens, very little of the vegetation here is natural. The fauna has remained much the same as it was hundreds of years ago (at least the baboons are still here). Originally, this area was part of the well-known southern African bush - a terrain which still survives in the vast rural regions of South Africa. When the Europeans came, they planted pines and eucalyptus trees for their own uses. The pine aren't like any I've seen in North America. They do have an African feel to them, I think due to the empty lower branches, and the large canopy-like upper branches. Eucalyptus trees are just something I've never been around before, so I didn't even realize that they were completely out of place.

In the modern era, there is some talk of removing all this foreign vegetation and letting the bush regrow. However, the introduced flora is not too invasive, and really that would cost tons of money. Plus, a large portion of the hillsides are now dominated by the vineyards (you can see them in the above photograph). There are a lot of wineries in and around Cape Town. The similarities with the California valleys are difficult to ignore.

It all adds up to some pretty spectacular views.
Africa: Life Out of Balance
The infamous Cape Town winds were active on this day, and wind whipping through trees across a mountainside is death for hearing the baboons vocalize to one another. I had to trudge up and down the mountainside several times, which was a boatload of joy. When I was finished, I found myself near the end of the forest, where the mountain starts to get noticeably steeper and rockier. This is the line where the Europeans stopped planting their own trees, and the native bush vegetation remains.
Africa: The Quickening
Baboons don't normally sleep in tall pine trees. Their natural sleeping sites are in the cliffs, similarly high so as to make it difficult for predators to catch them, and to shelter against the elements. Before the colonists altered the floral landscape, the baboons probably would have spent their nights up on the crags of Table Mountain.
it's called Table Mountain because according to Xhosa mythology, this is where uQamata bent over his consort when he was populating the world with life
Speaking of baboons, this was quite the cheeky troop, as I alluded to earlier. Troop 2 lives in a more remote spots, but it happens that their home range (which has been stable for a number of years now) overlaps with a popular picnic site which one can drive to. Tourists frequently do. Troop 2 has been receiving/stealing food from this site for a long time, and they've gotten used to a little resistance. They have learned to be afraid of humans more than the other two troops, but when they want/need to be, they'll be quite assertive with you.

For a first example, the mothers don't like me going near their infants. If I move within 30 meters of them,  they won't take their eyes off me, and if I get within 15, they'll usually walk away. The young baboons are much more likely to get out of my way when I'm moving near (not even through, mind you) their position. In baboon behavior, this is often a sign of respect to the dominance hierarchy, but this was my first time with these baboons, so I wasn't even part of the hierarchy. To be fair, it being my first time with them was good reason for them to be wary, but compared to the other baboons on my first days with them, it was quite surprising.

On the other hand, a female colleague was being... well... the baboon might well have been "hitting on" her. One or two males were particularly ballsy - she was standing on flat spot on the hillside recording some observations, and this big male swaggers by, moving right past her ankle on his way down the slope. Gave her the creeps. He made another pass, later, and she moved away. I swiveled my own position (which was sitting on a stump) to be more in line with him, but he effectively ignored me and continued to follow her a ways. So much for my masculinity keeping the baboons in line by my presence. When my colleague irritatedly explained what happened later, it became rather hilarious. Its not often you get to hear a researcher call a baboon a "jerk" because of a personal insult.

Towards the end of our work day (which in my world means noon), troop 2 pressed into the eucalyptus forest on their way to forage in the vineyards. I had a pair of first time experiences within. Firstly, a young baboon, probably a 3 year old female, came quite close to me where I sat on a log, taking a rest. She was looking at me directly, and wiggling her ears (a sign of good intentions in baboons). We though she might be threatening me, but after watching further, she seemed to be trying to be genuinely friendly towards me.

Unfortunately, the tender moment was cut short by the approach of a young adult male who is known as the "asshole" of the group. He made a swift appearance and was definitely threatening me. There is a simple formula for dealing with this. If sitting, get up. Once standing, turn around, and step away, in order to display submissiveness. Baboons will not fight unless they absolutely have to. Most social animals work this way. If you show them they've "won," they'll usually leave you alone.
that little punk at the bottom of the picture would never quite get his ass out of the show or stop moving around and blurring things up
We shuffled out of the forest as a segue from that event to something less dangerous. It was time for us to leave, anyway. During the drive back, along the unpaved mountain access roads, we had our windows open because it had become quite a hot day. We happened to roll through a puddle, splashing some muddy water over the vehicle and some of us inside. One of my colleagues remarked, "well, I guess that is the real Africa feeling."


  1. Furthermore, we had some battery issues, and we just barely squeaked by with enough juice to run the mock trial.

    Mock Trial with D. Malt Beverage and the Hung Baboon Jury?

  2. love the pics........awesome stuff,

  3. Awesome photos, and entries : )