Baboons are incredibly opportunistic, adaptable and intelligent. These characteristics make them very 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 died. Baboons play a pivotal ecological role in seed-dispersal and potential seed-germination of fynbos, particularly after fires.
The consumption of seeds post-fire is instinctive 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 residential 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 micro-environments 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 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. In 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. Offering human foods which are inherently more substantial, require less foraging time, are lower in fibre 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 practise tolerance for the possible 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)