The Melon Thieves of Niassa Reserve
In this shocking camera trap picture from our partners at Niassa Lion Project, we see two mischievous yellow baboons fleeing at a fast clip, caught red handed with a melon in one of their mouths. They’re running away from an unseen pursuer at a full gallop, with their tails waving wildly in the wind. If you’re thinking, this looks like thievery…then you’re absolutely right. In the conservation world, we call this a blatant case of human-wildlife conflict.
Interactions like this are a byproduct of human encroachment into the habitat of yellow baboons across central Africa. Unlike other wildlife who face this threat, the baboons have been able to successfully adapt to their newfound neighbors. Their omnivorous and opportunistic diet makes just about any and every meal they encounter edible, and their extreme cleverness makes them nimble and strategic when taking advantage of food left out in unsecured gardens and countertops by unsuspecting humans. They’re the perfect burglars, skilled and hard to catch.
They may make out like bandits and eat like royalty but their successful raids have unfortunately earned them a reputation for being agricultural pests to the humans they’re stealing from.
In Niassa, yellow baboons are responsible for about half of the annual crop raiding events—in 2015, a striking 100 percent of the incidents involving grain being stolen from food stores from villages in the Niassa National Reserve were a result of their handiwork.
Many people in these villages have dogs to keep the baboons away, but the results can be counterproductive in the end, making way for more baboons to invade. The dogs may have helped curb cases of grain thievery but dogs don’t discriminate when it comes to who or what animals pose a threat. They will also attack the important large predators of Niassa that prey on baboons like leopards and lions, leaving the baboon populations unchecked by their natural predators.
Bringing in dogs can cause additional problems to the community. They can spread diseases like distemper and rabies to people and wildlife. They are also used for bushmeat hunting, an indiscriminate form of hunting for any form of wildlife suitable for human consumption that is devastating to a plethora of endangered species, including yellow baboons. Niassa, like every ecosystem, is interconnected and baboons play an irreplaceable role in ensuring it doesn’t get disrupted.
Baboons might be agricultural pests, but they’re really important to the environment. As omnivores, the seed-bearing fruit, berries, flowers and vegetables that yellow baboons consume are digested and the seeds are dispersed wherever they travel. This keeps the plant life of sub Saharan Africa healthy and fresh. Additionally, they prey on smaller animals—like birds, hares, rats, insects, and spiders, and even baby antelope— making them efficient managers of a multitude of prey species populations, and ensuring that the populations numbers stay balanced and in sync. On the same note, they are also prey to predators higher up on the food chain.
The human impact on yellow baboons is strong, with more people moving into the baboon habitat and humans getting angry when the baboons take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Human-wildlife conflicts that lead to retaliatory killings, increasing pressure from the bushmeat trade, and primate babies being captured to satisfy the demands of the illegal pet trade are all threats to their populations.
Although our partners at Niassa Lion Project are known for protecting lions and other large wildlife in the Niassa Reserve, they are also intrinsically aware of the role every species plays toward a healthy ecosystem, from top to bottom. Therefore, they work closely with the local communities in the Reserve to educate people about the role that the occasionally frustrating, but always important yellow baboon has in Niassa’s interconnected web of vegetation, predators, and prey.