My Life as a Baboon Whisperer

My Life as a Baboon Whisperer

By Jenni Trethowan and Nick Dall


Because we raided their homes, not the other way round.

By Jenni Trethowan and Nick Dall

Jenni Trethowan, founder of Baboon Matters in South Africa, has been attempting to broker a peaceful coexistence for humans and baboons for a long time. Here, she explains what inspires her to work to save these creatures and their habitats. After all, they were there first.

Cape Town is built around a 50-mile-long mountain range that was once home to lions, leopards and antelope. The big cats have left, but about 500 Chacma baboons remain. With their historic migration routes cut off, these baboons are essentially an island population. They have nowhere else to go, so these highly intelligent animals have learned that human activity presents easy feeding opportunities.

I can’t deny that they’ve become a menace in some areas — there are plenty of stories of baboons snatching sandwiches from tourists at Cape Point and raiding rubbish bins in Scarborough. But I’m equally convinced that it’s up to us to find a human solution to the problem that humans have created.

So-called “raiding baboons” are almost always alpha males, and killing them creates a vacuum in the troop hierarchy that results in chaos.

I’ve lived in the beautiful surfing village of Kommetjie, wedged between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, since 1984. In the late ’80s, the baboons started to come into conflict with residents, and in 1990 the entire Slangkop troop was exterminated by authorities. In response, Wally Peterson and I founded the Kommetjie Environmental Awareness Group (KEAG). I was just a housewife, with no scientific training, but I couldn’t believe that this was an appropriate way to deal with animals that had simply been taking advantage of careless humans. If you were hungry and someone left a plate of food on your doorstep, of course you’d eat it.

A good example of this was Fred, an alpha male baboon who developed a reputation for getting into people’s cars and stealing their food. After a while, people started deliberately leaving food in open cars to see if he’d take the bait. Human beings can be quite something. Eventually Fred became so problematic that he was shot and killed. Not long after his death, two younger males who’d seen the parking lot as Fred’s territory stepped in to fill the void — they were also killed.


KEAG wasn’t just focused on the baboons: We cleared alien vegetation, taught people from the impoverished communities nearby about permaculture and spent a lot of time on waste management, a key tool in keeping the baboons away from human settlements. In 2001, after 10 years of walking with the baboons and learning to recognize all the different members of a troop at a single glance, I started Baboon Matters.

We were the first external service provider to be contracted by the City of Cape Town to manage baboons. From Day 1, our work was as much about people as it was about baboons. Everyone we employed came from the informal settlements nearby, so we viewed it as a form of community uplift. Over the next eight years, we grew the team from six to 29 men, and our humane approach to baboon management reduced the frequency of raids into residential areas. By understanding baboon behavior, our monitors were able to keep the troops away from the urban edge without resorting to aggressive tactics. We also took members of the public on extremely popular baboon walks, which did a lot to change perceptions of baboons.


Jenni Trethowan in the field.

Source Photo courtesy of Nick Dall

I’ll never forget chasing a young male called John Wayne from one end of the city to the other. After seven days and 20 miles, I eventually caught up with him on a container ship in the city’s main harbor. I followed John all the way to the top of the ship, with a crowd of bemused sailors and policemen watching from below. After simply staring at each other for a few minutes, I said: “John, my boy, you’re now really between the devil and the deep blue sea. Either you jump into the water or you come with me.” John considered this for a moment and then calmly followed me back down the ladders and got into the cage — much to the astonishment of the vet who had arrived to dart him.

In 2009, the council came up with a new baboon-management policy that involved “eliminating” raiding baboons. I refused to enforce this policy, and as a result, Baboon Matters lost the contract. Since then I’ve been completely shut out of the system in Cape Town, and we’ve had to bring the baboon walks to an end. It’s sad to not be involved, but I couldn’t do something I didn’t believe in. So-called “raiding baboons” are almost always alpha males, and killing them creates a vacuum in the troop hierarchy that results in chaos.

Baboon Matters is still helping baboons in other parts of South Africa. We run education programs that teach people how to coexist with baboons and what to do if an encounter does occur: Stay calm. We’re also hellbent on exposing slaughter, wherever it happens.

The City of Cape Town has announced that their next step will be to “build” a virtual fence, where collared baboons set off sound bombs whenever they pass a certain point.

I’m keeping an open mind.…