News 24

Critics allege ‘secretive’ operations against Cape Peninsula baboons

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  • The City of Cape Town and a company managing baboon troops in the Peninsula are at loggerheads with a group of concerned residents.
  • Residents of Kommetjie and surrounds live with baboons moving through their suburbs, with the threat of damaging property.
  • But the methods used to manage the troops have drawn much attention and criticism.

While the dispute over Kataza rages on between the City of Cape Town and animal rights activists, the City is now being accused of suppressing information about the baboon management operation to prevent criticism and protests against the operation.

But the metro says some of its critics are pushing their “own agenda”.

Sources tell News24 that members of the Council Appointed Representative Baboons South (CARBS) committee, appointed by ward councillor Simon Liell-Cock, are being denied information about the City’s baboon management operation, yet are expected to be a conduit of information between residents, the City and the service provider.

Two members confirmed that they had been instructed not to talk to the media.

One member, who insisted on anonymity for fear of recrimination said:

The whole thing is a big joke. It’s as if they only want us on the committee to say they have community representatives, but the communication is one-sided. We’re not allowed to communicate with rangers or HWS [Human Wildlife Solutions] and they treat us with contempt if we question anything. We get the monthly report two months later, which is too late for us to act on anything. They also want to blame us for ‘not educating the community’.

They say they are condescendingly dismissed as “activists”, as if their activism discredits their opinions and that their challenges to the science, methods and data are being suppressed to prevent public opposition and protest.

READ | Splat! Kommetjie residents feel the brunt as ranger paintballs & baboons damage properties

In a formal response from the City, Liell-Cock said “some CARBS members have sympathies with ‘activists’. They attend meetings, are provided with facts and information and then use social media and media generally to push their own agenda which is often at odds with goals of management”.

“CARBS committee members are there as a communication mechanism and have no mandate to interfere in the operational activities of the appointed service provider.”

Critics also claim that the outgoing service provider, HWS, manipulates data to justify killing “problem” baboons and under-reports the presence of baboons in Kommetjie village.

The City denied the claim and referred to monthly HWS reports, but did not confirm any independent evaluation of HWS data or reports.

Another source claimed HWS managing director Phil Richardson “admitted he would not tell the CARBS representatives if a baboon was to be euthanised, ‘because then people in the area might try and protect the baboons’. They don’t want people to know what is happening, so that people do not have the chance to protest or stop them from capturing and killing the baboons.”

Liell-Cock responded by saying: “… not informing the public before a management action is taken is done to ensure the welfare of the animals. Members of the public have interfered directly with the capture of injured baboons, compromising the animals’ welfare. Public representatives were informed within 24 hrs of the relocation of SK11 (aka Kataza) to Tokai.”

He referred to an incident in which an activist chased a baboon which had broken its leg in a fight with another male and had to be captured and assessed by a vet and the SPCA.

“The activist was abusive, disruptive and violent towards the HWS staff and in the process compromised the injured baboon’s welfare. This is why the public are informed AFTER the event.

“CARBS members are not involved in the operational decisions and neither is the councillor. We need to engage at a level of policy and criteria, not around each decision made in terms of the policies and [standard operating procedures] – that is for the professionals to execute.”

Critics also accuse the City of dismissing evidence that baboon management guidelines aren’t correctly applied, are ineffective and unnecessarily harmful.

Methods

The methods include the use of paintballing, bear bangers and a virtual fence – collectively referred to as aversive conditioning, designed to scare baboons away from residential areas.

Scarborough animal behaviourist Taryn Blyth explained that aversive conditioning was not properly applied. “They’re trying to teach baboons to stay out of residential areas, yet they continue the aversive tactics into wilderness areas where, according to the theory, the baboons should get relief. That would teach the baboons to differentiate between hostile and safe areas and condition them to stay in the safe areas.

But I’ve seen them paintballing baboons away from the Lewis Gay Dam, where the baboons need to drink – in a wilderness area where they are not a threat to humans.

OPINION | Managing baboons on the urban edge of Kommetjie

News24 also witnessed rangers paintballing baboons on top of Slangkop, more than 400m from the village.

“This is counter-productive because there is nothing the baboons can clearly connect with the punishment. This is ‘non-contingent punishment’, which results in chronic stress because there is nothing they can do to avoid it,” Blyth said. 

Blyth also cited a study which showed that the virtual fence (a line of speakers from which the sounds of leopard and hyenas are played), without any threat that is genuinely aversive, results in desensitisation.

Bradley Thorsen from Kommetjie said: “When the baboons hear the leopard sounds played from the loudspeakers, it initially gets their attention and they look up and around. But then they just go back to whatever they were doing. Apart from momentarily getting their attention, it doesn’t cause them to get up and move.”

It appears the baboons understand what it means to “cry wolf”.

ALSO READ | City slams ‘kill list’ claim

Blyth said Richardson admitted the baboons in Kommetjie consciously broke the line of rangers while being paintballed.

She said: “The baboons accept the aversive stimuli, because the attractants in the village are more compelling. This is an admission the aversive stimuli is not effective.”

Richardson claimed that “bad baboons train new bad baboons. They need to be removed before they train other baboons to raid”.

“Ultimately”, Blyth said, “the only thing left is for HWS to motivate and submit applications to euthanise the ‘problem’ baboon, but in effect they are punishing the baboons for their own failures. The City would thus continue to cull and remove every ‘problem’ baboon… and the end result would be no baboons on the Cape Peninsula.”

The City claimed the “tactics have remained constant since 2012” and that the baboon population has in fact grown in the past eight years of aversive management.

While the fight over Kataza rages on, a new contract has been awarded to Nature Conservation Consultants (NCC), which lost the contract to HWS eight years ago. Lyndon Rhoda confirmed that NCC would be meeting with City officials soon “to sign the contract and to discuss the protocols”.

He added that they were also hoping to meet all the role players.

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