Baboons were omnipresent when I lived in Kenya. They hung out around the research center, nibbled on grass and leaves on the soccer field and landing strip, filled the trees around the chimpanzee sanctuary, and foraged for scraps from human garbage and chimpanzee garbage. If you want to read a really amazing book about baboons (also: research, growing up, biology, Kenya/Africa, and the amazingness of the field in general), try A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. (10/10, have read multiple times, recommend without hesitation.)
It’s a good thing too, since they were my early-warning system walking around. Baboons are loud, gregarious, sassy, and pretty much always let you know what’s going on around you. I loved walking “in” the group of baboons. Sure, they gave me a wide, 10 foot berth, but I was still within their center of mass as we traveled from place to place. If there were no baboons, I knew that I needed to be a little more cautious than if I was surrounded by a large group of romping, grunting, galloping fuzz balls. On more than one occasion I saw baboons running panicked through the bush from my observation vantage point, and sure enough not far behind them would be a lion or hyena.
Baboons rank right up there in terms of the scariness of males. An adult male is about 2′ tall, though much of that is a big mane of hair goes from his neck down past his shoulders. The thing that’s really scary care the canines — long, 2″+ canines that he proudly displays whenever he smiles or yawns. And those canines can do some serious damage given the opportunity. I mostly saw that opportunity exercised upon other baboons, though a few small mammals became the victims of those teeth.
Inevitably, male baboons are always the ones who get tangled up in human business. Classic boys-are-young-and-dumb syndrome. Big males would always be the ones that had to be, um, humanely relocated for breaking into houses to raid the kitchen. The staff I worked with told me about male baboons that would plunge their hands into boiling pots of ugali (corn meal) in order to get the ugali before it was distributed to the chimpanzees when cooled. One afternoon another researcher and I walked into the research center (a converted barn, we slept in the stalls, I know you’re jealous) and heard strange noises coming out of the kitchen. We approached the kitchen door with trepidation only to have a HUGE male baboon explode out of the kitchen, shit all over the floor, and run out of the door with his hands and mouth full of our food.
That was obviously not the only time that happened. Because our windows didn’t close all the way (or lock, frankly).
One afternoon I climbed up the stairs to the roof to my regular observation point. I always walked up to the wall that edged the perimeter of the roof to look down the wall to check for chimps sitting at the base of the wall. The roof was about 18 feet up, and 15 feet up the wall (aka 3 feet below me) there was an overhang of electric fencing to prevent the chimps from using branches (aka tools) to climb the wall. (I think that’s also called a kick in, but you know what I”m talking about. It’s the stuff that stops people from climbing over fencing because you have to go upside down.)
As I leaned over the wall and looked down I found myself staring into the open-mouthed face of an adult male baboon at the exact moment that he leapt from the overhang wire back up towards the wall. I can still see his face — his mouth was open, canines on display and flying toward my face.
I bolted. Without thinking or looking, I ran anywhere but there. Within about three steps I had tripped on a skylight grate and sprawled across the roof, winded, binocular strap snapped, camera grazed and lodged somewhere in my ribcage. The big male baboon had, it seems, also looked into the face of terror and was sitting on the edge of the wall about 15 feet from where he started, panting and staring at me.
On the same roof, weeks later, I convinced one of the chimp caregivers to give me a 1′ piece of sugarcane to gnaw on. The chimps got sugarcane to eat sometimes, and I’ve had sugarcane before — it’s delicious and sweet — and I figured I deserved a snack. Turns out there are two kinds of sugarcane: soft and hard. I had previously consumed soft. The hard sugarcane tasted fine, but was essentially impossible for me to bite into. I placed the piece on the wall next to me as I continued my observations.
A few minutes later something drew my attention to the right, and I looked over to see a subadult male baboon standing Right. Next. To. Me. He had adopted his sneakiest possible posture, one hand outstretched and reaching for the stick of sugarcane, eyes darting between me and the sugarcane. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t scream. The baboon grabbed the sugarcane and bolted. I did not run away and trip over the skylight this time. I may have soiled myself a little. (Look, live in the field for long enough, and you just accept these occurrences.)
Baboons sleep high in the trees at night, snugged into forks in branches and piled up on their sisters and mamas when it’s cold. Often they do this over water, and in the morning after they get up but before everyone comes down from the tree, they have morning ablutions. By which I mean, they crap all over the place. But over the water the plinking and tinkling is astonishingly musical, like nature’s first set of wind chimes. I loved it.
Sometimes two groups would come together and fight on the rivers edge, all the males from each group getting growling, screaming, and barking at one another in a giant ball of bodies rolling and cascading down the riverbank. It defied physics — it was like a cartoon of animals fighting with a lot of dust and way more limbs and size than seems possible. But it happened more than once when i was watching, and from the sound of things happened at other times too.
One afternoon I climbed into a bush Euclea to visit the facilities. It was the same bush that an adult male baboon had climbed to the top of while looking for his friends. When male baboons are lost they let out an alarmingly loud, barking contact call. I did not know that Mr. Baboon was in the tree and a contact bark sounds a LOT like a carnivore. A carnivore who is really close and really in the same bush as you. And di I mention that it is REALLY loud?
Let’s just say it’s a good thing my pants were already down, because those pants would have been toast.