Nairobi Baboons – Article by Gareth Jones
NAIROBI BABOONS – THE OLIVE TROOPS! – BY GARETH JONES
Not too long ago much wildlife roamed freely in the Nairobi area as there was very little human development, however in the last 100 years the city has grown dramatically and most of the species that were saved now reside inside the Nairobi National Park. However as Nairobi has so many large trees, many arboreal species have continued to move over a larger area. Some of these ‘roaming‘ species include several species of monkeys and olive baboons.
A few weeks ago on a sunny afternoon as we sat at the Athi dam, a large troop of Olive baboons were congregated there and climbing into the fig tree on the dam wall. A group of baby baboons caught my eye as they began to play. Suddenly a slightly older youngster decided to grab a piece of a stick and challenge all the other baby baboons to play “catch me if you can”, obviously the slightly older youngster ran rings around the wobbly legged new born babies. But what impressed me, and was also interesting was that the babies all tried to actually catch him with their undeveloped bodies. One baby baboon seemingly “jumped for joy” in excited frustration, as the older youngster victoriously ran past him with the stick, and sat on the road biting his “victory prize stick”. I believe this type of “game activity” while occupying their day as seemingly having fun, is actually a vital part of the rapid physical development that they all need in the wild to ensure that they can respond to danger situations.
A few years ago, late in the afternoon while driving near the main gate I saw a large troop of olive baboons. They were very relaxed and not frightened by my appearance, so I switched off the vehicle and watched them for a while. It is well worth the time to sit and watch a troop interact, as much of what they do can be almost “human like” and even amusing! The tiny babies cling tightly to the bodies of the mothers and young baboons are always inventing some new game in a tree, or chasing each other on the ground. Other older baboons spend time doing their daily preening and cleaning exercise, sitting still while another looks for parasites like fleas and lice in their thick fur. Occasionally a large male would decide to show his dominance by chasing a few baboons, as they all scattered, giving high pitched screeches as they ran away.
Over a period of many years I have noted some of the habits of this particular troop. They seem to like to frequent the area around the Kenya Wildlife Service Head Quarters and often cross the main Langata road outside the protection of the park. They are very intelligent and clearly understand that the park is seemingly safer, apart from predators like leopards, however they seem to be prepared to take risks to go “shopping’ in order to find food.
Olive baboons are very intelligent and clearly understand that human habitat areas (like the KWS main gate and Office zone), are sometimes much safer than being in the wild, to try and avoid predators such as leopards in the park. They have thick furry coats, and it is well worth the time to sit and watch a troop interact! Baboon antics are also particularly interesting to humans because many of their habit traits are almost “human like” and therefore are often amusing and fascinating, especially when the babies play so innocently, helping them to develop into strong adults that can fend for themselves in the wild.
Baboons are classified as Omnivores as they eat predominantly vegetarian diets with a little meat at times from baby antelope, and small creatures like scorpions. A few weeks ago we witnessed a large male baboon eating fresh meat from a piece of a carcass. Likewise a few years ago it was reported by Dave Mc Kelvie that a large dominant male baboon actually killed a young newborn bushbuck and ate it.
It should be noted that Kenya has 2 sub-species of baboons, namely the Yellow baboon with sparser body hair in the drier areas like Tsavo, Meru & Shaba, and the Olive baboon predominantly found in the higher cooler forested areas of Kenya including the Nairobi National Park. Baboons are Old World monkeys belonging to the genus Papio, part of the subfamily Cercopithecinae which are found natively in very specific areas of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The common names of the five species of baboons are the hamadryas, the Guinea (also called the western and the red), the olive, the yellow, and the chacma baboons. Baboon males flash their menacing canines at their rivals, which can grow to be as large as an adult male lion’s. There is at least one extreme documented case in Africa when full grown adult male baboon fought against a leopard and then both species died due to the fight, however this is very rare. In most cases baboons are fearful of leopards and flee, however I once witnessed a troop mass together and then chase a young leopard away from the Sosian valley in the Nairobi National Park. Females also tend to pick males with larger teeth, seeing the fangs as a sign of dominance. Baboons tend to sleep in large trees to increase their safety from the threat of predators. Baboons tend to have an organized family structure we call a troop, an Alpha male tends to dominate, with the rest of the troop being submissive, and clustered in smaller family units within the troop.
Persons visiting the park should take particular care when visiting picnic sites, as there have been a number of nasty incidents involving baboons raiding innocent groups of visitors. Sadly this type of behavior happens when people start feeding baboons, the consequence is that some of the baboons then lose their natural fear of humans and can become quite bold and aggressive at times. The baboons particularly target food packages, and will even climb into motor vehicle if doors and windows are left open. There have even been extreme cases when baboons have even bitten persons who try and get them out of their vehicles. Take care at the picnic sites, especially Mokoyet (near the Mbagathi river).
Next time you visit the park, if you find a troop of baboons, sit and watch them for a while, it’s really worth it!
The park is open daily from 06h00 to 19h00.