Typically South Africa is known for the Big Five: lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinos. But not for Lucy Cooke, advocate and avenger for the lesser-known and unloved animals of the world. Lucy’s on a hunt for the more enigmatic Freaky Five: Cape vultures, sungazer girdled lizards, golden-brown baboon tarantulas, ground pangolins, and chacma baboons.
The Freaky Five are all important to South Africans and their traditions. Mystical and mysterious, these five animals represent a side of South African culture that the tourists and conservation donors both often overlook. But Lucy Cooke is on a mission to change all of that!
My job as a presenter for National Geographic Wild affords me some rare privileges but the opportunity to take part in relocating an entire troop of baboons ranks as one of the most memorable.
If you want to compile a list of the world’s most unpopular animals, baboons are way up there, vying for the top spot with sharks. With canines longer and sharper than a leopard and the strength to rip a man’s arm off they’re not exactly cuddly. In fact many cultures believe they are evil.
I’m a sucker for the ugly and unloved so when we were planning our filming trip in South Africa, baboons were at the top of my list. Little did I know that meeting these monkeys would prove to be something of a personal test.
Bob Venter is the baboon’s biggest fan. He runs the Riverside Wildlife Rescue Centre, and watching him frolic and chatter with these misunderstood animals you might even think he is part baboon himself. Bob has spent decades successfully rescuing and rehabilitating baboons giving him a unique understanding of their complex society, supreme intelligence and powers of communication. Many arrive as orphaned babies, stolen from their mothers for the pet trade or for use as traditional medicine. They may look cute but my first encounter with one of these babies was challenging to say the least.
Three-month-old Matthew lived in the youngsters enclosure with a bunch of other orphaned toddlers. It was clear that he had future alpha male written all over him as he was by far the most curious and naughty. As I approached the cage he began shrieking and displaying a rather tumescent appendage – slightly unnerving behaviour in one so young. As I nervously entered the cage, Matthew registered his delight by delivering a large steaming poo on my left shoulder. Let’s just say that this was far from endearing. Baboons after all are omnivores and this was a seriously smelly greeting on my much beloved Barbour jacket. It flashed across my mind that maybe it’s true and baboons really are evil.
Bob assured me that I would get used to and even begin to like the intense smell of baboon excrement. I struggled to see how this would happen but he was right that baboon poo would become a constant feature of my three days at the sanctuary.
I had come to help Bob with the release of 28 baboons. An entire troop that, like some sort of baboon wizard, Bob had assembled over several years from orphaned and injured individuals from all around the country. This would be the first time anyone had ever attempted to release a whole baboon troop and was the climax of years of planning and hard work.
Bob had been waiting patiently for five years for exactly the right moment when the baboons had bonded sufficiently as a group for them to be released. This had recently happened in a rather unusual way. A wild male, escaping from an angry farmer’s shotgun had jumped the fence of the adult enclosure and decided to stay to join Bob’s group as the new alpha male. He had sealed his status by mating with Daisy, the lead female, and fathering the troop’s first baby.
The arrival of Daisy’s baby had been the glue that Bob had been waiting for. It really brought the troop together and now Bob knew that these baboons would look out for each other and survive in the big wild world. At last it was time for them to be free.
Stage one was to capture the baboons and transport them to the release site. Easier said than done. Baboons don’t take too kindly to being told what to do so we would have to use cunning to try and outwit them.
A local vet had come along to dart each of the animals using a tranquiliser gun. We then had to carry the drugged monkeys to a makeshift MASH tent where they received a medical before being placed in individual cages for transport. These monkeys can weigh up to 100 pounds and I did my back in carrying multiple baboons, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. I also became increasingly familiar with baboon poo as the sleeping animals left their mark on my now heavily abused jacket.
But handling these sleeping giants allowed me a rare opportunity to examine the powerful males close up. Evolution has crafted an animal of such perfection it gave me goose bumps. Its famous canines are self-sharpening and like razors as a result. In fact one of the males bore a deep wound in its incredibly thick skin – the result of a tussle for dominance – that showed just how effective they are. We share 91% of our DNA with baboons and staring into their eyes it is hard not to feel some connection.
Bob had chosen a beautiful bush location in the midst of a private reserve, far away from humans, for their new home. Baboon heaven. This would be what’s known as a soft release. Whereby the animals spend the first two weeks surrounded by a temporary electric fence to stop them escaping. If they were simply set free into the wild the shock of the experience would cause them to run off in all directions, disbanding the troop and reducing their chances of survival to slightly more than zero. This way they had a chance to get used to their new home as a group before the fence is taken down and they are totally free.
Releasing the baboons into their new home was not without its drama. Some of them were anxious about being in the small cages, bringing back unpleasant memories of their time as pets. The door to their new enclosure was wider than that of their individual cages so as we released them I had to wedge myself in the gap to prevent them escaping. This was scary enough but hovering inches from my head was the 10,000 volt electric fence. Bob kept warning me about the fence but it is somewhat hard to concentrate when you have a severely agitated alpha male baboon grabbing at your legs. And sure enough I hit my head on the fence and blacked out from the shock.
It was a totally surreal experience. I came to, wondering where the hell I was and why there was a camera pointing at me. Then I remembered I was presenting a TV show and releasing 28 baboons. Of course! Bob told me he had seen grown men thrown to the ground by the experience. I was apparently saved by the thick soles on my boots. Phew.
Despite a broken back, the omnipresent stench of baboon poo and the unscheduled electro-shock therapy, taking part in this exercise was actually one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Baboons have a reputation for being aggressive animals but their sophisticated society is actually largely built on friendship. It is these bonds that make them such a successful species. To see these fascinating animals happily chattering away, tenderly grooming one another and exploring their new home as a group was hugely emotional and something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Thanks to Bob these monkeys had escaped death or a fate even worse and were finally on the road to being wild again.
Don’t miss Freaks & Creeps: Africa’s Freaky Five on Tuesday, July 31st at 10P on Nat Geo WILD.