“Humanity acquired the label Homo sapiens in 1735, courtesy of the Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné. In a work which applied his newly devised binomial system of biological classification to the animal kingdom, von Linné listed all known animals by genus and species according to their perceived relationships and gave a brief description of each... the genus Homo was described with the single Latin phrase: “HOMO nosce te ipsum.” meaning “MAN know thyself.”
–John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent
He sat facing me, knees bent and hairy legs wide, his dark eyes dispassionately meeting my gaze. He huffed and sighed, cocking his head to one side and resting an elbow on his knee. Occasionally his stare flickered long enough to pick an insect from his dusty body and stuff it into his mouth. He glanced at my rucksack.
“Elf…” I found myself saying reprovingly, raising an eyebrow at him. I paused.
Why am I talking to a baboon? I thought. This fieldwork is making me nuts…
The rest of Elf’s troop was foraging in the waist-high, summer’s-end grass around me, pulling up shoots and nibbling at the tender base, stripping stalks of their seeds, or stirring up insects and maybe even, for the lucky ones, a lizard or two. I recognized Elf immediately when, as the rest of the troop cast me twitching glances, he casually strolled up and sat beside me on a boulder.
His long muzzle, pointy ears, and shifty gaze were the same, though he had grown a bit since my research partner, Camille, and I had first seen him about 8 months before. Then, he had approached these two strange bipeds, sat meters away when the others wouldn’t allow us within a stone’s throw, spread his legs, rubbed nonchalantly at his chin, and released a long, arcing stream of urine in our direction. In attitude if not in action, I saw some of my college friends. It wasn't hard to imagine that he was a slightly stoned guy hanging out in the common room of my dorm building, waiting for a chance to steal a bag of chips from the kitchen. Minutes later, as we refocused our attention on observing the behavior of his troop-mates, he made off with a box of cookies from Camille’s pack, flashing his bare bottom in our direction as he raced to a spot just out of reach, where he sat and savored his spoils. A month or so later his ambitions had grown and, with the help of another male, he bolted with Camille’s whole rucksack.
As the summer grasses began to wither and quiver with the winter’s winds, I traveled to the valley beneath Cathedral Peak to check in on this troop of chacma baboons, which Camille and I had spent a month tracking and observing last spring. This time I found them within their old range, methodically scouring this hillside meadow for forage, between the only road and the cliffs that walled in the country of Lesotho.
From a distance they are little more than a wrinkle on the horizon, like a square stone skipped along the edge of the earth, leaving its low shadow in its wake. The Zulu call it uKhahlamba: the barrier of spears. Afrikaners saw a dragon’s smoky breath in the clouds that rise in great spreading formations, like a river delta pouring into the heavenly firmament.
And so they dubbed them the Drakensberge: the Dragon Mountains. In truth the Drakensberg are less a mountain range than an escarpment, great volcanic extrusions eroded into a matrix of plateaus, river canyons and steep stone cliff-faces by the inevitably decaying forces of weather and time. These broad canyons slip from Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky, into curling rivers – the Orange, the Vaal, the Tugela – which provide thatch-roofed villages, tin-housed settlements, growing dorps, and ultimately goliath metropolises such as Johannesburg with that vitalizing liquid.
The valley lies submersed in a suspended sense of the in-between, for Lesotho looms just beyond those immutable cliffs that rise until they met the sky, casting the island-country toward the heavens, into the realm of the soaring jackal buzzard and that drifting shadow of the Berg, the eland. Despite being the largest living antelope, the size of a dairy cow, with thick, twisting horns and hooves that leave tracks like dessert plates, the mountain eland can slip between boulders as quietly as the scuttling gray shrews that rustle the grass as they forage in the night. Otherwise the silence here is impenetrable, enclosing, until a baboon barks from behind its long fangs or a black-backed jackal gives its ululating yowl, deep within the darkness. Two and a half millennia have passed since the Khoi-San began adorning these walls with red-brown paintings of these beasts, the men who hunted them, and the half-man-half-animal deities that presided over it all. In the gloom beneath rocky overhangs these faded images catch the traveler unawares, like the phantasms that linger after waking suddenly from a dream. This was the kind of place that tempted you to melt away into the landscape, to disappear into the long shadows of river-canyons stuffed with old-growth trees and bottled-water brooks, or into the longer shadows of the immersive night where the only distinction between sky and mountain is where the stars lie and where there is only space like an elephant’s silhouette.
At the confluence of two brooks that trickle from deep and narrow river canyons lies the Cathedral Peak Hotel, proudly displaying a plaque at the door, each of four stars painted the colors of the South African flag. The hotel has sprawled for seven decades below the steeple of Cathedral Peak, beyond two colonial-era oak plantations, their trees tall and straight and distinctly un-African, and at the end of an immaculately black two-lane road that winds beside a broad and clear mountain stream.
The hotel’s legacy saved it, allowing it to remain standing amidst the plateaus and ravines of what later became a national park and World Heritage Site. I was staying with a manager of the hotel, Errol, and his wife, Margie, whom I had met during my work in the valley last year. You could not guess from Errol’s tucked and ironed shirt, pressed pants and gleaming black shoes that he was, on certain days, not Errol, Deputy General Manager, but Ebby the Clown. His career as the hotel’s resident jester began when he threw a circus-themed birthday party for his daughter and first played the role; he was then asked by other parents to perform at their children’s parties. Soon he was putting on regular shows at the hotel, disappearing as the eloquent and aristocratic manager of a four-star hotel and returning crimson-nosed, in a yellow patchwork suit, flowering hat, and broad blue shoes, to perform tricks for a giggling gaggle of 5-year-olds.
“So now you’ll be working in the Kalahari?” Errol asked me over dinner one night. He shook his head and suppressed a smile. “You know, there’s a town up there, with a name spelled H-O-T-A-Z-E-L. Say it.”
“Er…Hote-azelle?” I said uncertainly, “No… Hot-as-ell?”
“Exactly. Because it’s hot as hell up there. I’m serious.” He grinned, his wrinkling eyes hinting at the mirth that lay beneath his fixed appearance.
Margie, who was always prepared to offer a smile and a kind word, put me up in their daughter’s room for the duration of my stay. For three days I rose with the sun, left Errol and Margie’s house, walked through the hotel grounds to follow the narrow trail to the rock face where Arry the baboon and his troop roosted, and waited for the acrobatic juveniles to make their first cartwheeling appearance as the sun dusted the boulders golden. I had found Arry’s troop where I had left them eight months before, consistency being a wonder of nature almost as miraculous as the miracle of change. The group had not grown much in number, despite the fact that leopards, their only real predator in this area, hadn’t been seen in more than ten years, wiped out by development and stock farmers armed with rifles. As the troop trickled down the slope, 29 baboons of all sizes, I stumbled behind them over the uneven ground, the grass so high that I couldn’t see my feet. Arry, the ‘grandfather’ and babysitter of the group, trailed the tumbling offspring of this past year, as they chattered and wrestled and clung to him while he foraged his way toward the oak grove.
In the oaks the baboons parted the golden-brown mantle of fallen leaves, meticulously picking insects and acorns from the detritus. They watched me closely, wary of this pale hairless primate that sat closely and observed as they traipsed across the hotel’s lawn and the golf course, without shouting or throwing stones in their direction. After my final day with them I scrambled down a cliff face in the gloaming and came upon the groundskeeper and his German shepherd walking along the golfing green.
“Peter! Good to see you…have Arry and his troop been causing any trouble at the hotel lately?”
“They have, hey… breaking into the garden and the chicken coop, some of them even entering guest’s rooms…” He looked at his feet.
“Ah…that’s not good…”
“Ja, it’s not, hey. We had to shoot one recently, a big male who was getting dangerous. Now there’s one in Arry’s troop here, a massive male with a sort of silvery back, like a gorilla. He may be the next to go.”
I nodded and stared at the ground, understanding. As human populations in Africa grow, they are forced to share more and more space with the wildlife. Some, such as baboons, manage to adapt remarkably well to urban life, raiding dumpsters and plantations to compile a diet of nutrient-rich manufactured or cultivated foods that is superior to that of their fully wild counterparts — just half a loaf of bread makes up for four hours of foraging.
Consequently, when humans make these foods available by leaving dumpsters uncovered and homes and agricultural plots unprotected, the baboons concentrate in developed areas and are regarded as vermin. Despite local baboon population declines and their consequent position on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, their tendency to enter homes and occasionally become aggressive toward humans has left offending animals unprotected under South African law. The isolated Cape Peninsula population may be extinct within the next decade.
In other places, though, baboon populations are exploding -- largely because people across Africa are exterminating their main predators, leopards and lions. Recent research has found that outside of some national parks in west Africa, humans and baboons share internal parasites -- where baboons live and defecate, humans get worms. The best solution to this problem is to restore top predators to African ecosystems. Ultimately, reviving that balance will save both humans and these animals that are so reminiscent of ourselves.
Note: A version of this blog was originally posted on jenguyton.wordpress.com in September 2010.