Chacma baboons are the largest of the 5 primate species found in South Africa. Of these five, four can be found in the Kruger National Park, namely the chacma baboon, vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), Thick-tailed bushbaby or Greater galago (Otolemur crassicaudatus) and the Lesser bushbaby or Southern lesser galago (Galago moholi).
Let’s discuss the chacma baboon in more detail...
Chacma baboons are a gregarious and very social species and troop numbers can range from 8 individuals to over 200 animals, but typically numbering remains between 30 and 40. Troops consist of family groups of males, females and their young. Usually females outnumber males 2-3 : 1 with immature animals making up at least half of the troop size.
Their social organisation is highly complex and varied. As a norm, females make up the stable core of the troop. A hierarchy exists between adult females and their offspring. Males, especially adolescent males, may repeatedly move between troops, but the young males usually only move at around 4 years old when they have a growth spurt, during which they develop long, sharp canines and become bigger than and dominant over all the females. At this stage reproduction motivates males to transfer between troops, staying for as little as 1 month or as long as 10 years.
Once females are mature enough to conceive, at around 5 to 6 years, they will produce at least one young every 1 and half to 2 years. Conception peaks tend to occur during periods of food abundance.
In Kruger Park, visitors may often get to see females with differing degrees of swelling of the sexual skin. Mature males know when females are most likely to conceive, and this is usually when the swollen area is at its largest. Prior to this, a female may allow sub-adult and even juvenile males to mate with her.
Interestingly, baboons typically give birth during the night and while roosting. It is believed the reason for this is that females may, at times, experience a lengthy labour and will be too exhausted to keep up with the moving troop, if births take place during the day.
Newborns have black fur and bright pink facial skin, ears, hands and feet. It usually takes them around 2 months before they develop enough climbing skill to clamber over small logs and other baboons. Before this, the young typically cling to their mothers’ underside when she is on the move, with some moving to her back at around 6 to 12 weeks of age.
Yes, chacma baboons have ‘Godfathers’. These are males that associate with the females and play this role to their offspring. It is not uncommon to see these Godfathers spending time with infants, including holding, carrying, grooming and sharing food with them.
Not only do young baboons receive protection against the dangers of injury by other baboons and increased access to resources, but Godfathers have even been known to act as foster parents to juveniles whose mothers die. In many cases, they are the real fathers of the infants but, according to one study, males that are probably not the father are as likely as actual fathers to play Godfather roles. The inference is that males also derive benefits from Godfathering infants other than their own. These may include:
Establishing bonds with a female that will culminate in the fathering of future offspring; a means for male immigrants to gain acceptance into a new troop more quickly; and opportunities to use infant, juvenile and female associates as buffers in aggressive encounters with male rivals.
Evidence indicates that the reproductive success of male baboons is affected to a large extent by their normal, non-sexual relationships with females.
Baboons are a diurnal species – meaning they are active during the day. Guests on a Kruger Park safari may, at times, be alerted to sounds in and around the camp at night and think it might be baboons moving around, but baboons sleep at night and are dependant on roosting in trees, where they feel safest.
Baboons become restless at dawn and then start their day moving together as a group. Their movements and activities are highly coordinated and 90% of them do the same thing at the same time. Unlike most other African wildlife, baboons do not have set feeding times that peak at early mornings and late afternoons. A given troop may be active at any time of the day, and although they may drowse in the shade when it is very hot, what sets this species apart is the lack of any set pattern.
Distribution and availability of water, food and sleeping sites largely determine how much time a troop has to spend foraging and traveling and how much will be left over for resting and socialising.
Baboons living in open savannah, like the Satara area, may cover a bigger area during the day than, for instance, baboons living along the Sabie River between Skukuza Camp and Lower Sabie Camp, where fruit trees and the availability of water does not require the troop to move over a bigger area.
Chacma baboons are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. Their diet consists of virtually all the accessible edible plants within their range. These include, grasses, flowers, fruits, seeds, buds, leaves, shoots, twigs, bark, sap, roots, tubers and bulbs, etc.
Which of these is fed on mostly depends on where the baboons spend most of their time.
Once again, baboons living in open grassland savannah will mostly feed on grasses with over half the time spent foraging, being time spent eating grass. Similarly, baboons living along riverine areas such as the Sabie, Olifants, Letaba, Shingwedzi and Levubu Rivers will feed predominantly on figs, pods, leaves and other fruit such as the Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis) and the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea).
Grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions and other invertebrates may also be important dietary supplements. Studies show that vertebrate prey is seldom sought and rather taken opportunistically. These include frogs, lizards, terrapins, the young of ground nesting birds, crocodile eggs, small rodents, hares and even the offspring of antelope, that are usually still in their concealment stage.
Usually only adult males will catch prey the size of hares and fawns. Outside of the Kruger National Park, male baboons can become major predators of young goats and sheep.
In the Kruger, chacma baboons are constantly surrounded by predators and troops need to be alert at all times, though it may not always appear that way, with animals freely wondering about, the young playing in the bush and adult baboons spending considerable time grooming out in the open.
Baboons are, however, always alert with some individuals often sitting high up in trees (where available) keeping watch and being quick to sound the alarm should a predator be seen.
There is evidence that not only adults but also sub-adult males, and even adult females, will confront predators as large as leopards (Panthera pardus) when there is no alternative.
The way baboons respond to a predator depends very much on its identity and on the circumstances. The response of a troop to a distant lion (Panthera leo) or leopard depends on whether they are far from or near a secure refuge. An attempt by a predator to come between a troop and the safety of trees can create panic.
In contrast, baboons are more relaxed when moving through short grass or through areas with good visibility rather than moving through tall grass or dense vegetation that could conceal a predator. They are most cautious when going to water, often having a few animals approach at a time and carefully scanning the surrounding area for any danger.
When a troop is alerted to danger by an alarm bark, adult males will move in the direction of the disturbance and will demonstrate typical vigilant behaviour. A sudden disturbance nearby provokes a barrage of loud barking and a stampede for cover. Males will form a rearguard and, if necessary, go on the offensive.
Several cases are known in which leopards have been mobbed and severely wounded by baboons. Leopards are regarded as the most effective baboon predator and may take unsuspecting individuals out of a tree during the night when its eyesight is far superior and the risk of an onslaught by the male baboons is highly unlikely.
Other predators of baboons include spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), pythons as well as large eagles such as the Martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) and the Crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus). Predators that are noticed during the night may be met by a very effective rain of stinking excrement, which may discourage any further interest, if there is any on the troop.
Chacma baboons in Kruger Park have, to a large degree, become accustomed to the presence of humans and vehicles and are mostly easy to approach while on a Kruger safari.
In some areas, baboons have learned how to cleverly steal food out of vehicles and visitors should be cautious around baboons - this means not having a window open and unguarded. Confronting a baboon is not wise and should always be avoided.
These are powerful animals with canines longer than that of a lions and a bite from one could result in serious injury. It is not uncommon to see baboons jump onto vehicles and for the young to play on top of and slide off windscreens etc.
While this may be entertaining it is best to slowly drive off, ensuring no baboon is under the vehicle or in danger. Wiper blades and mirrors are often broken as a result of this play time.
Most camps try to keep baboons out, but campers and restaurants - with food being readily available - make it a difficult and ongoing fight to ensure the safety of visitors. When seeing these animals move through a camp, it is best to observe them from a distance and not to approach any individual.
Ensure that food items are stored away and where the fridge or cupboards are outside, that appropriate locks are used to keep opportunistic animals away. It is of utmost importance that animals are not purposely fed. This will only lead to trouble for future visitors and these animals may have to, eventually, be put down for the safety of guests.
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