Baboon Society

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Among the forested islands and wildlife-rich floodplains of Botswana lies the highest concentration of baboons in Africa. Get an inside look into the heart of baboon society.

Swamp of the Baboons
premieres Thursday December 16 at 8P et/pt on Nat Geo Wild.

Meet some of the baboons…

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Boro: The Alpha
When we join the swamp troop, Boro is the powerful male ruler of the baboons. He brutally dispatches rivals and jealously guards his mating rights with the troop’s most fertile females. He has been the group’s alpha male for about a year now, and his chief goal is to mate and produce as many offspring as possible—but his time may be running out. Because of the high density of baboons in his home, Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the competition between males for the alpha position is intense. Few hold the position for more than a year.

Boro is the father of two young baboons, but there are eight other males in the troop who are striving to improve their positions on the dominance ladder. If one of them should battle his way to the top, Boro’s offspring will be in grave danger. When a new alpha male baboon takes power, he will often kill the progeny of the previous alpha so that their mothers will be ready to mate much sooner.

The mighty Boro uses ‘threat yawns,’ full open-mouth yawns which display all of his powerful canines, to intimidate potential challengers within the group. But he cannot control the sexual activities of all the group’s two-dozen females. The group’s size has grown significantly over the months, and many of the infants are not Boro’s.

His two offspring, a boy and a girl, are safe as long as Boro holds the alpha male spot. When his son grows into sexual maturity, however, he will most likely leave the group to fight his own way to the top of another.

Male baboon fights are often a bloody scene. When an outsider, a young male in his prime, invades Boro’s troop, each member soon shows the scars of battle. The intruder works methodically to fight and defeat each of the males, starting at the bottom and working his way up to the very top, Boro himself. If Boro feels threatened enough, he will shift his priorities from procreation to protection, closely guarding his two offspring.

The life of a male baboon in the Okavango is brutal, competitive, and full of stress. But the females have their own problems.

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Shashe: The Queen
Shashe is the highest-ranking female baboon in Boro’s troop. She, however, did not need to fight for her position. Female baboons inherit their mother’s rank at birth and it generally remains fixed for life.

The females of Boro’s group outnumber the males nearly three-to-one, and they form the static core of the group. Once a female is born into a troop, she rarely leaves it, unlike young males who will search for a new home once they are sexually mature. Because of their long years in the same environment, female baboons are the keepers of knowledge, and know where it is safe and where to look for food. When a pack of lions comes threateningly close to Shashe and the other baboons, it is the females who lead the long march away from the cats to safety.

It is not all simple and easy for females, however. When neighboring baboon troops invade Shashe’s territory, it is the females who are harassed if the males fail to protect them. They also deal with the danger of new, foreign males threatening their infants’ lives.

When Shahse’s son dies not by the hand of another baboon, but from a fatal disease, she is unable to let go. Mothers are hardwired to be with their young until they are weaned, so sometimes they will carry the dead infant for days. Shashe’s daughter tries to comfort her, helping care for the body and grooming her mother’s fur. But even after she has abandoned her son’s body, Shashe calls out for him in her distress. Female baboons grieve for their lost young ones long after they die.
Disease is just one of many threats to a young baboon’s life. But that doesn’t mean being young isn’t fun.

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Chobe: The Baby
Chobe is the older of Boro’s two children. She and her brother have different mothers, so even though she is the alpha male’s offspring, she will not be the most high-ranking female when she grows up. That role will go to Shashe’s, daughter.

When Chobe is born, she is a magnet to her fellow females of all ages, who are eager to inspect and groom the newest member of the troop. Chobe will learn quickly that grooming is a baboon’s most important social act. By trawling for parasites through the fur of their troop mates, baboons make friends, solicit favors, and make peace with enemies.

As she grows and becomes more mobile, Chobe develops a fascination with the other baboons that occupy her world. Young baboons are curious and playful, and enjoy splashing in puddles and play-fighting with each other. Chobe has lots of other young baboons to keep her entertained.

Once she reaches three months old, Chobe becomes too heavy to be carried against her mother’s chest. Luckily, with age has come agility, and she will soon learn how to ride on her mother’s back, like a jockey. This will help especially when the baboons have to cross high waters, as it will afford Chobe a dry ride.

Sadly, more than one-third of Okavango Delta baboons do not survive their first year. Disease and predation claim some, but most are killed by immigrant males. If Chobe can make it to her first birthday, she will be free to grow up and become a valuable member of her troop.