I’d been told to stand bolt still and not look at him. It was easier said than done. A metre to my rear a large dominant male baboon was staring me up and down with what I could only imagine to be a sneer written across his face. I’d never been so close to a baboon before and prior to this moment I’d thought of them as merely rather amusing safari animals – the kind whose antics could be relied upon to make granny blush. Now that I was being glared at by one from such close quarters, I reassessed this image and came to appreciate the baboon for the large and powerful animal it actually is.
A fully-grown male, at the pinnacle of his strength, walks with a serious swagger and looks like a cross between a Rottweiler and a grizzly bear; only more aggressive. So being told to stand still and pretend this one wasn’t there… wasn’t going to work. Besides, if I was about to be torn limb from limb, surely I deserved some warning. So I turned to look at him. »
I was visiting the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project in central Kenya and was increasingly coming to the conclusion that this little-known attraction was one of Kenya’s unsung tourist highlights. Here, for the past three decades, a group of Kenyan and American scientists has been studying three troops of baboons, who, after years of having every aspect of their lives scrutinised, have become perfectly habituated to humans. Each troop contains around a hundred members ranging from tiny black, and almost cute, new-born babies to cavorting teenagers looking for love. And from busy mothers fretting over their youngsters to grumpy old boys who’ve lost their place at the top of the pecking order.
And, so habituated have the baboons become, that visitors can, for a few hours at least, almost become a member of the troop – following it at close quarters as it moves like an army scouring the hills for food.
My guide, and translator of baboon behaviour, was a clipboard-clutching scientist and, in between jotting down notes on what each baboon was up to, he regaled me with the kind of baboon trivia that’s guaranteed to enliven any dinner party. For example, did you know that in baboon society sex is used as a greeting in much the same free and easy manner that we humans air kiss old friends? I didn’t. Nor did it appear, from my own brief observation, that the baboons were greatly fussed as to whether they were ‘air kissing’ other males, other females, or even the kids. My guide, however, assured me that baboon society features much more than early morning immorality.
Baboons, he said, often pair for life, though he tempered this vision of happily married baboon couples by describing their relationships as ‘fiery’. Affairs, it seems, are everyday occurrences with the older females frequently taking a toy-boy on the side; jealously is also common. When a younger, unattached female, is on heat, for instance, she’ll be trailed by a pack of potential suitors. But, behind them, come the older females, keen to keep an eye on what’s happening. And, should one of ‘their’ men try his luck with the temptress, all hell will break loose.
Of course, baboon life doesn’t entirely revolve around sex. It also revolves around food (so you’re probably coming to the conclusion that baboon society has an awful lot going for it?). My guide explains how the omnivorous baboons are very adaptable when it comes to finding food. One of the more intriguing examples of this adaptability involves prickly pear cactuses. Originating in the desert regions of the Americas, prickly pears were only recently introduced to Kenya. Thriving in areas of patchy rainfall, the hilly habitat of the baboons suits the cactus perfectly, and their fruit is sweet and refreshing. But you have to know how to avoid getting a mouthful of tiny irritating spikes when you bite into it. The baboons have learned quickly. First they pluck the fruit; then they rub it carefully on the ground to remove the spikes. Evolution, I couldn’t help thinking, was speeding up.
All such baboon trivia, however, had been learnt earlier in the day. Now, at the end of the day, I was under close scrutiny from a very large male baboon. I turned to look at my aggressor: our eyes met. He held my stare without flinching; and I realized how great had been my mistake in ignoring my guide’s advice.
My heart was racing. Any second now I was going to have my arm torn off. But then, quite suddenly, the baboon flung back his head, as if in disgust at my puniness, and swaggered off in pursuit of a passing female. Time for an ‘air kiss’….
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