'Cousins' at War: Baboons vs. People

ByMike Lee

CAPE PENINSULA, South Africa, March 17, 2007 — -- In this lush remote finger of land on the very southern tip of Africa, "cousins" are at war with one another in a classic battle for territory.

The feud is between humans and baboons, which share enough of our genetic traits to be referred to by some scientists as close cousins in the evolutionary ladder. But that's where any sense of family identity stops. Baboons have long been widely considered pests because they raid farm crops.

And now there is a new source of friction on Cape Peninsula. Urban development has cut off a troop of 350 baboons from territory where they used to roam free and forage for food among wild bushes.

So instead they now hunt for food in the trash cans and kitchens of the humans who have taken over their former domain. Some days entire neighborhoods look like they had been the scene of a food riot, with overturned trash cans and ripped garbage bags strew over the pavement.

Many of the humans are very upset.

Carlo Volbrecht, a home owner, told ABC News: "They've been inside my house probably five times. They've defecated all over the place. They open the fridge, they take food from the cupboards, and cause damage in the process."

And even more alarmingly, said Volbrecht, "Baboons broke through my roof, entirely destroying the ceiling, and entered the room where my infant son was sleeping."

Volbrecht and a handful of other local homeowners have formed the Baboon Free Neighbourhood Action Group, which favors a peaceful solution to the turf battle, either fencing off the baboon population, or relocating them to a remote reserve.

Other residents are urging that local government officials cull -- kill -- the baboons. That is a difficult issue because at present it is illegal to kill baboons.

However, some people here have taken matters into their own hands. According to animal rights campaigners, some 30 Cape Peninsula baboons were slaughtered last year alone, either by shooting or by poisoning.

Jenni Trehowen and other animal conservationists have formed a charity called Baboon Matters, which pays for a handful of people to monitor baboon movements and try to steer the animals away from urban areas. Trehowen told ABC News that the solution is neither to fence away, nor relocate, nor indeed kill baboons.

"We have a fantastic opportunity to learn how to live alongside another species," she said. "It doesn't take a lot to adapt our lifestyle to that of the baboon. Keeping your rubbish contained."

Volbrecht of the Neighbourhood Action Group disagrees.

"We've been told by authorities not to let your kids play in the garden while having food of any sort. That's ridiculous," he said. "You can't have your kids not enjoy a cool drink or a packet of chips in your own back garden. I can't entertain anymore because the baboons have lost all fear of humans and as soon as food is around, so are the baboons."

Aside from the issue of safety and property damage, there is a broader and fundamental issue that affects us all: How can humans and animals can share the planet amid shrinking natural resources?

Trehowen of Baboon Matters puts it this way: "You don't have to like baboons. You certainly don't have to like bears or coyotes like you've got in America, but if you could learn to accept that they are here, and they have a right to be here."

She added, "What small steps do we need to adjust in our lives so that we can actually all enjoy the planet together, rather than thinking we are the dominant species therefore we own it all. I don't think it's right, we've got to change that."

Volbrecht of the Neighbourhood Action Group told ABC News: "I myself am a great conservationist and a lover of animals, just not in my home."

He added, "They [baboons] don't belong among human beings. It's not good for the baboons, and it's not good for the people."

So what is the solution? Fencing has little support because it is extremely expensive and has had mixed results in the past. Culling is such a politically difficult issue that it also seems unlikely to happen.

That leaves two options: Relocation, or convincing people to live with the baboon presence by altering their lifestyles.

The Neighbourhood Action Group thinks relocation is the best option; otherwise, baboons will increasingly face human retaliation.

"Unfortunately, if you look at the history," said Volbrecht, "where baboons and humans clash, where any animals and humans clash, animals lose."

He added, "Before it reaches the point where they might have to be culled, let's find a peaceful solution to deal with this issue."

"With regards to relocation," said Trehowen, "Sure, that's an option, but have we learned anything?" She adds, "The planet is really, really taking stress at the moment. If we can learn from the animals and be with them in peace, is really does act like food for our souls."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events