From the field!
May 2023, Theresa Schulze
Above: An Issa yellow baboon forages on the long wet season grasses (Credit: R. Drummond-Clarke/GMERC)
Left: Our baboon search team (minus the author) (Credit: T. Schulze)
How (not?) To Find Baboons...
A "Nyani-Tafuta" day – when researchers head out to find the baboon study troop – occurs once a month, followed by 5 days when researchers record data every 5-min on everything from wat parts of a plant individual baboons are eating to whom they’re grooming or even threatening. These ‘searching’ days can sometimes be successful attempts after less than an hour – when we guess the sleeping site correctly – or take far, far longer!
It was a warm, sunny May morning, at 7:30 a.m. and the baboon search team was ready with packed lunch, rainwear, and immeasurable (!) inspiration.
We were a large team, that eventually fissioned to be more efficient, consisting of myself and Rama – two experienced baboon chasers – and two interns (Janeth and Lian), as well as Alex. Since the previous day’s search surrounding the station had already been unsuccessful the day before, we set off towards the depths of Mchungwa – a valley system east of the study area and what we think is the likely boundary of the newly habituated study troop. Rama knows these areas better than I know the inside of my small tent, but for the rest of us, this is unexplored territory.
In duck march we negotiated swamps shin-deep in water, crossed rivers, and swam through meter-high oceans of grass. After I had long given up trying to get my bearings, Rama eventually announced that we would split into two teams to maximize our search effort. While Rama and Lian marched off in one direction, Alex, Janeth, and I trudged up the hill in the other.
I quickly switched into primate-search mode, carefully scanning every tree and rock surface for the (until now) elusive baboon. I noticed every flicker of movement in the trees, wondering whether what I suspected was a gust of wind or a fleeting sunbird was actually our baboon troop...But nothing yet. We checked and left behind baboon sleeping sites, beautiful views over the Issa Valley and steppe-like landscape views without even the slightest sign of baboons. It was as if 45+ baboons had simply vanished!
After a while our splinter teams reunited, trading stories of baboon habitat that was absent of baboons. At least Rama and Lian had encountered some vervet monkeys – encouraging signs of other mammalian life! After a short food-drink-talk break we continued, we continued our search in a new direction. Soon we were at the other edge of our troop’s home range and yet still no sign of the troop. And believe me, this is a group consisting of 45 animals, it is not easy to miss them! When we finally managed to find Rama and Lian again we decided to walk together slowly back towards the research station. I joked that the baboons were probably in camp and we would find them on the way back.
We did find evidence of social mammals near camp, but these were hoofed ones, best known for their milk and beef production! Being from southern Germany and having grown up surrounded by farms, I felt a kindred spirit to the cows and tried to approach and photograph them. However, their oversized horns and nervousness suggested I keep my distance!
As we resigned ourselves to begin back to the station, under growing frustration and fatigue weighed down on us under the hot sun. I gradually lost hope that we would find any primates. By 3pm, we reached the station and changed out of our field clothes. I traded binoculars for pasta to replenish my energy levels, and listened to a colleague discuss coming across a freshly killed bush buck, surrounded by leopard prints. Excited, we made plans to go back there and deploy camera traps to see if any other animals might be coming to feast. As we were about to head back out, I heard someone calling from the other side of the station, “Hey, your baboons are here!” Surprise surprise...of course the troop that we had spent all day sweating over, was just behind our tents!
I was disappointed that I missed the bushbuck viewing, but happily threw down the remaining past, returned to the changing room, and spent the final hours of my day watching the newly habituated troop forage ~50 meters away from my tent! As evening fell, they decided to sleep right on the edge of the station...and not so far from I lay down myself!