In the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa, baboons are considered by many residents to be unwelcome pests. They frequently raid garbage bins and break into homes looking for food. But a conservation group has been trying to change perceptions about baboons, by showing that urban wildlife can become a tourist attraction. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick reports.
More than 350 baboons live in parks and nature preserves along the outskirts of Cape Town. Most of them stay away from people. But several baboon troupes have learned they can find an easy meal in suburban homes. Their raids have prompted calls to kill or relocate the most aggressive animals.
Baboon tourism is trying to balance the negative aspects of living close to wildlife.
"Can you see up there? Just look at that little family up there," said Siphelo Maneli, who is leading a group of five tourists up a rocky hillside at the edge of town.
"That's Georgie and Ellie. The big one there is the alpha male of the group," said Maneli.
About 500 people a year sign up for these intimate wildlife encounters. During the two-hour walk, people stand face-to-face with a troupe of 30 baboons in a natural setting. Mothers are nursing babies. Adolescents are playing.
Maneli explains the troupe's complex family structure and vocalizations.
"When they scream like 'ahh, ahh' they were playing. When there's one baboon that comes from the other group, then the big male will go ugh, ugh, ugh' and go 'whoa' to call the others together. It's a language. They communicate to each other very well," said Maneli.
These walks are organized by a local group, called Baboon Matters. Its leader is conservationist Jenni Trethowan.
"For hundreds of years people have had the paradigm that baboons are a problem. They were always referred to very negatively," said Trethowan. "If people are cross with each other, you say: 'you great 'bobbejaan.' It's always been a derogatory term, a baboon. So the walks are changing people's paradigms, and are being hugely successful about getting people to think about baboons in a different light."
The experience isn't entirely peaceful. There is constant competition among the baboons for dominance within the group.
The guide explains, as the battle unfolds, and the tourists are fascinated.
"I didn't realize there was logic and thinking behind most of their moves. I thought it was quite random. But it's highly structured, highly planned, coordinated. It's just remarkable, the intelligence of the groups," said Laurie Hearn of England.
"I feel so privileged to be so close to them. I see them on the roads, but I've never been this close," said Sue Kieswetter of Cape Town.
Tourists pay $35 for the walk. The money helps fund a network of neighborhood patrols, which herd the baboons away from homes to reduce the conflict between people and animals. Jenni Trethowan hopes her project sets an example for others.
"Around Southern Africa, baboons, vervets, all primates are under huge threat. And, we're seeing that walking with the gorillas and the orangutans has had a massive impact on raising the consciousness for people," added Trethowan.
Trethowan says, as African cities continue to grow into wildlife habitat, people must learn to live with the animals that are already there.