Baboons are incredibly opportunistic, adaptable and intelligent. These characteristics make them incredibly successful animals. After fynbos fires, baboons do exceptionally well with naturally available food.
Fynbos is a fire-adapted vegetation which requires occasional burning for genetic survival. Despite the stark appearance of the landscape, several species of fynbos plants release seeds which then become readily available to baboons and other wildlife. Because the roots of fynbos do not run deep, as is the case with forests where underground roots continue to burn long after the fires have been extinguished, wildlife can begin foraging in the burnt fynbos areas just hours after the flames have stopped. Baboons play a pivotal ecological role in seed-dispersal and seed-germination of fynbos, particularly after fires.
The consumption of seeds post-fire is instinct for local wildlife. In both the March 2017 and this recent fire, the Rooiels baboons were seen in the newly burnt areas immediately following the fires, preferring the abundantly available high-protein seeds over visiting resident properties in the village for more mature fynbos. After the initial seeds dwindle in numbers (approximately one month from fire dependent on rain and wind), baboons consume many plant species at every stage of regrowth. Additionally, the act of foraging and digging for bulbs and shoots by baboons creates microenvironments for dispersed seeds.
Survival despite extent of fires
There is some difficultly in predicting the longer-term availability of food for the baboon troops whose entire home ranges may have been burnt and where all the vegetation in the area will undergo the same stage of regrowth simultaneously. Unfortunately, we do not have information on the home ranges of most of the local baboon troops, so we cannot determine whether there are in fact local troops that are likely to face this challenge.
Importantly, baboons are not territorial and as such are able to shift their home ranges during times of need. I remain confident in the extreme adaptability and ecological and behavioral flexibility of baboons to survive even in times of potential lower food availability.
Baboons in towns
Smoke inhalation and burns can pose a threat to wildlife. Baboons may seek refuge in urban areas during active fires. During the mayhem baboons may end up separated from their troops so spotting baboons alone or in small groups can occur. These baboons may appear distressed as they vocalize to find their troop. However, baboons are instinctively driven to reunite with their troop members and are adept at doing so. In particularly stressful cases such as wildfires, it is possible that this may take a few days before it is achieved.
Natural food is available to baboons immediately following a fynbos burn. Despite its availability however, finding seeds still requires extensive foraging time by baboons. We know that baboons will always take the opportunity to forage for human foods over their natural food sources as these human foods offer higher calorie rewards for less effort. This is not unique to fire situations and exists in all baboon troops living on urban and suburban edges. The presence of baboons in villages immediately after fynbos fires does not mean that the baboons do not have food, but rather that they are in search of easier human food opportunities.
Feeding baboons after fynbos fires
It is easy to empathize with the human desire to assist wildlife after fires. Afterall, the landscape does look frighteningly barren to the human eye. However, I strongly advise against the feeding of baboons after fynbos fires. Provisioning of baboons in villages perpetuates potential conflict with residents, dogs and motor vehicles and for this reason is prohibited by law. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly in the current grand scheme, offering human foods which are inherently larger, require less foraging time, are lower in fiber and higher in calories than natural foods and are thus more attractive to baboons, deflects from the ecological purpose of baboons to facilitate the regrowth of our exceptionally rare and special fynbos.
How you can help?
In an effort to prevent potential conflicts, I strongly recommend that residents remain vigilant to the presence of baboons in the villages. Please stay active in preventing baboons from exploiting human food from homes and bins through baboon-proofing and keeping windows and doors closed when not in the immediate vicinity. I also ask that residents please practice tolerance for the potential increased presence of baboons within the villages during the coming months as the mature natural vegetation on properties and road verges may offer important supplemental foods during this time. Please prevent interactions with pet dogs by not leaving dog food outside and bringing dogs indoors if baboons are heard or seen in the area. Injuries to baboons or other wildlife should be reported to CapeNature.
Concerned residents can supply clean drinking water in gardens for wildlife as this has little negative impact on the ecological balance and is unlikely to serve as a strong attractant for baboons to visit properties. In the coming months as our communities rebuild, it is advisable that residents exclusively plant indigenous species in gardens. Planting local species aids in the recovery of the existing fynbos by increasing local genetic plant diversity, replaces recovering areas with naturally occurring plant species as opposed to exotic, invasive plants which threaten the survival of the fynbos biome, offers ecologically-appropriate food sources for surviving wildlife and is fire-wise compared to non-indigenous plants.
* Joselyn Mormile is a resident of Rooiels, primatologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town & Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild)
Due to the recent fires CapeNature is requesting that communities living adjacent to the burnt areas support the recovery of wildlife by monitoring the condition of species and to report any injured animals to CapeNature as soon as possible.
It would be very helpful if the following information can be provided to CapeNature when an injured animal is found:
- Exact locality of where the injured animal has been found/spotted (GPS position if possible).
- Correct species identification (as far as possible).
- Brief description of the injuries to the animal.
- If possible photographic evidence or video footage should be taken so that the correct information is made available to the Official for the most appropriate treatment.
Do not approach an injured animal or put yourself in any danger, the public can rather contact Corlie Hugo at Kogelberg Nature Reserve (087 288 0499 / 082 380 9071) or Andre Marais at Walkerbay Nature Reserve (028 314 0062 / 066 233 4493) for any wild animals found.
No feeding of wild animals
Wild animals will naturally move to alternative habitat if there is available habitat, by feeding wild animals you are firstly keeping them from a natural evacuation of the area and secondly make them dependent on feeding stations. As soon as the habitat assessment is completed, the situation will be reassessed.
Help by assessing and reporting – not feeding! It is therefore advisable that the condition of wildlife be monitored rather than fed by the public. We should support wildlife by allowing corridors in order to allow them to move freely, driving carefully along public roads, and ensuring that our pets do not get the opportunity to chase wildlife that graze/browse closer to residential areas.
Please drive carefully, road verges also provide food for wildlife such as small antelope and primate species as these areas are often intact and are good for grazing/browsing and will be feeding close to the road.
Please stay out of natural areas – no hiking
We ask that the public refrain from accessing any natural areas in the region where there are still active or smoldering fire lines. These areas continue to have a high fire danger risk so please help us keep everyone safe.