Baboons in our midst – a glimpse into the life and work of a primatologist

By Zina Morbach

Observing primates in their natural habitats is a core part of the work of primatologists, but most people have little sense of what that entails – beyond glamorized images of Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist.  In what follows, Zina Morbach, a PhD student in CRESIDA, provides a fascinating visual account of the life of a primatologist in the field.

For my research on social resilience and stress reactivity in chacma baboons, my data collection occurred at the field site of the Primate and Predator Project, which is run by the University of Durham, UK. In comparison to other sites where I have conducted fieldwork, it is a relatively luxurious camp. Students and researchers live either in bamboo huts or tents, and have a shared kitchen and living area, as well as an office to work in. There is even a freezer, so you can buy frozen food for a lazy day!

Bamboo huts at the PPP camp
My home during field work at the PPP camp

The PPP field site is perfectly located in the Soutpansberg mountains where all three South African primate species and several carnivore species inhabit the forest. People working on Samango monkeys and vervet monkeys are quite lucky in that the habituated troops are normally not too far away – you even get visits from them in camp!

Vervet monkey visiting camp

If you are studying the baboons, you might also occasionally get lucky…

Baboons on a road near the camp

…but it is a lot more likely that you will have to go out and look for them, and maybe for a pretty long time. For the most part, we had one individual equipped with a radio tracking collar, which allows you to track them down more easily. That is, if they are (or better, you are) in the radius in which you will be able to receive the signal. The latter is not always a given, plus, even if you do get a signal it might be diverted by trees, rocks, cliffs, the mist and rain… Finding baboons is hard work!

Finding a lookout to track baboons with radio collars is always a good idea. Plus, you often get a nice view!
Foggy, rainy and cold morning where we spent hours watching a few baboons just out of reach on the cliff, before they decided they’d rather go look for the sun above the clouds. At that point, we decided we’d rather go home.
Finding baboons in the fog and rain is no joy – and be aware, wet rocks are not your friend! Plus, misty weather like this is also prime leopard hunting time…

If you do manage to find them, there is still the issue of actually sticking with them! Baboons oftentimes walk about 20km or more during a day in the search for food and water, not caring for environmental factors such as dense bush, bogs or even cliffs. They will take the shortest way up the cliff, which is impossible for humans. So, you either find the nearest safe path up, or, depending on where you are and how courageous you feel, you might try and climb up the cliff yourself. But believe me, getting stuck halfway up a cliff while being on your own is not as fun as it sounds!

Me on my way to work – taking the ‘easiest’ path up the cliff!

 But should you manage to find and stick with them, you will be rewarded by getting to know some amazing creatures. While they can be quite vicious with each other, they are also very caring of their friends and offspring – they just love infants…

Two baboon females relaxing with one of their infants

…and some are quite stunning! (Some more dope than stunning).

Flare (an adolescent male) posing for the picture
Igon, an immigrant adult male, and quite an impressive looking baboon!
Adolescent female being funny

So yes, being able to observe baboons for such a long time is both really hard and really rewarding. Whether you do behavioural observations, poop sample collection, or are just trying to find the troop – or your way back home – it is an amazing place to be!

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