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Cape Town baboon debates: Good fences make good neighbours

Experts agree that electric fencing is necessary to manage baboon populations near urban areas, despite initial resistance from residents.

In the workshops held for residents of Simon's Town, Scarborough, and Kommetjie, a consensus has emerged among experts that solutions to the management of Chacma baboons must include strategically located and appropriately designed electric fencing. The presence of these highly intelligent primates in close proximity to expanding urban settlements in the south of the Cape Peninsula presents a significant challenge for conservation authorities and the City of Cape Town.

The release of a long-awaited strategic management plan for baboons by a joint task team established in 2022 is eagerly awaited by residents in these areas. However, a contentious politics of human-baboon relations continues to divide communities, as emotions and opinions run high. Actions such as shooting at baboons and using flags to slow down traffic on the main road through the village incite a great deal of ire and disagreement among residents.

Rebecca Davis's article in Daily Maverick accurately portrays the anger and frustration experienced by both sides, but it misses the mark when it comes to solutions to this wildlife management conundrum. The article does not address the central question of how to effectively manage the human-baboon conflict, despite the availability of research and local expertise on the options available.

The ongoing Baboon Dialogue Initiative, facilitated by the Simon's Town Civic Association, has provided a platform for residents to engage with experts and improve their understanding of the issues and potential solutions. Over 18 months, several workshops have been held, attended by hundreds of people, where a common understanding of solutions has begun to emerge.

The root causes of the problem appear to be the declining area available for baboon foraging activities due to expanding human settlements and the baboons' habituation to human foods and presence. Baboons now spend more time looking for calorie-rich foods in residential and business areas, leading to conflicts with humans and increased risks to the baboons' safety.

The panel of experts, including Professor Justin O'Riain, Dr. Dave Gaynor, and Joselyn Mormile, unanimously agree that electric fencing, strategically located and appropriately designed, is a crucial part of the solution. They argue that, when well-maintained and supplemented by rangers manning entrance and exit gates, electric fences can effectively keep baboon troops on the mountain. This approach has proven successful in the Zwaanswyk area of Tokai over more than a decade.

Efforts to keep food out of the reach of baboons are also seen as worthwhile and should form part of a package of solutions. However, on its own, this is unlikely to be effective, given the challenges of ensuring every home, shop, or restaurant is baboon-proof 100% of the time.

The majority of residents initially express objections to the idea of electric fencing, citing concerns about cost, risks to wildlife, and electricity outages. However, after being exposed to expert evidence and opinions, they typically moderate their objections and concede that there may be sense in such a strategy.

If electric fences, along with complementary measures such as improved waste management, prove to be as effective as experts suggest, there is hope for the Deep South. Residents of the middle ground, who are not anti-baboon but in favor of pragmatic and effective solutions that benefit both baboons and their human neighbors, are likely to support these recommendations.

Ultimately, the implementation of effective solutions could lead to a fading of the current rancorous primate politics in the Deep South, allowing for initiatives promoting enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of wildlife living on the peninsula.

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