Friday, October 30

Walk on the Wild Side

Perhaps you readers remember that thing I said about it being very rare for one to ever see two baboon troops come into direct contact because of how good they are at avoiding each other.

Turns out I was dead wrong about part of that statement.

Having not accomplished jack this week thanks to the baboons being all out of place, I wanted to go out and do something. Just finding one of our missing troops would be satisfying enough. Tina and I thus decided to go look for them off in the boondocks of the left side (don't tell me it doesn't make sense - that's just what we call it) of the mountain. We had no GPS readings or anything else to go by except our ears and knowledge of where the had been the previous few days.

Our main troop was up the mountain yesterday, but not today. We drove back out and headed up to the second troop's usual spot. We asked mountain bikers for any tips as we usually do, though no one came through today. None were seen on this road. Our last ditch effort was to go up to the high road and see what we could find.

"Look! Baboons!" Tina shouted and pointed directly ahead. I hit the brake and the car ground to an abrupt halt on the dirt road, narrowly avoiding the murder of three juveniles. We hopped out for a quick inspection. After spotting a few key characters like Mortimer, Bruno, and Eva, we identified them as troop-number-two. At last!

We unpacked our stuff so we could follow them. This plan did not last long. A wahoo echoed into the forest, originating nearby. And I heard a reply from further down the mountain. Tina and I looked at each other. Neither of us was going to get real data out of this day. We both knew the other wanted to find out what was happening down there.

We followed some of the young adult males down the hill, eventually passing them when they halted. They were a bit agitated - actually the whole troop seemed more vocal and excited than usual. We crossed the lower road we had already gone through, and kept moving into the bushes.

We found our main troop. Well, we found half of them. The juveniles and sub-adults were all there, mucking about, grunting, and acting just as agitated. Bertrand, Chester, and Damian, the other three adult males, were all there, too. Only two or three adult females could be seen.

We were both quite happy to have found these guys. They were still way too high up on the mountain, and far out of their home range, but it was closer to their usual territory than in the previous few days. I felt somewhat relaxed, so I went across the road into the bushes have a celebratory pee.

As I am doing this, a wild cacophony erupts behind me. I turn around mid-stream and see a pack of  sub-adult males from troop 2 charging down the hill towards the road where all the troop 1 juveniles and sub-adults are sitting. Shit was starting real fast. As soon as I finish my piss, I turn around and dash after them, fumbling with my pants and zipper, which I manage to get closed just before I jump into the thicket of dead branches and needles after the males.

Screams and wahoos are everywhere in there, males are chasing each other up and down trees, and around frightened children. The whole place is a huge mess and I can't begin to follow everything that's happening. But I know I am witnessing a rare event. The larger defensive force of Tr.1 eventually pushes back Tr.2, out of the thicket. They take up spots in the trees nearby, and the wahooing continues. I didn't think sub-adults could wahoo. Boy was I wrong.

Tr.1 eventually pushed Tr.2 back further, a ways up the mountain. The two sub-adult forces sat there for quite some time, me sitting in the neutral zone between them, watching. The wahooing had ended, and the groups had settled down to just staring daggers at each other, a mere 20 meters between them.

This seemed to be going on forever, so I went to find Tina to see what she'd learned. She pointed out that the females were nowhere to be found, but there were still fainter wahoos coming from down the hill. We both wanted to know more.

Down through the forest, we saw a large male running around, chasing some other baboons occasionally, and even more occasionally giving a wahoo. When we reached the next road down, we saw it was Aaron, alpha king of the troop. And he had herded all the females this way, far from the site of battle. We found almost all of our missing females down there, and Aaron was being more forceful in pushing them around than we'd ever seen. He had a reputation as being a calm and "sweet" baboon, in spite of being the alpha.

It was tense down there, as one would expect from a dozen females who were being pushed away from everyone else in the troop by a single massive male. It was simmering down, though. I had seen the end of the conflict, now it was just a matter of tensions subsiding. We weren't going to wait, though. It was rather late by this point, and we'd found three of four troops in a single day with minimal advanced info.

Right now I'd like to bow to science, and give a brief description of the model which is usually (and was) obeyed during these troop-to-troop engagements. The groups get divided into two factions during these encounters: the leader males with the females, and the sub-adults and juveniles.

The sub-adults and juveniles are an excitable bunch as always, and they tend to itch for fights and new things. The cape baboons are definitely what we call neophilic. Also, the young males (of which there are many), will eventually need to emigrate from their troops, and they don't have a lot of choice. They frequently use these instances to get information about opposing females, if possible. Plus, if they're really lucky, during one of their incursions they'll be able to copulate with a female.

Which is why the alpha and most females stay very far away. The females don't care much, but the alpha doesn't want anyone getting near his females. Just as Aaron did, the alpha will herd the females away from the opposing troop, quite a distance sometimes, in order to protect them for his own good.

In the end, the troops go their own ways and it doesn't happen again for a very long time. (Un)fortunately, we're not dealing with chimpanzee warfare here in Cape Town.

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