The Drew Lab at Columbia University

Home » Uncategorized » Guest Post: Provocative Papionins: Human-Baboon Commensalism

Guest Post: Provocative Papionins: Human-Baboon Commensalism

Baboons are charismatic primates, located within the Papionin tribe under the genus Papio, with a current taxonomic evaluation of five distinct species (well, depending on who you ask!).  These magnificent creatures have been exploiting humans in overlapping areas for quite some time, and within the peer-reviewed literature, this conflict is termed commensalism.  Let us not forget that these flexible mammals are merely adapting to human encroachment and intervention needs to take place to properly manage this still thriving conflict. 

While much of the scientific data still focuses on primate sociality and health outside of human influence, a budding perspective has taken hold within the field, termed ethnoprimatology.  This view “… rejects the notions that there are ecosystems on the planet in which humans have no impact and that studying primates in minimally impacted “natural” settings gives us higher-quality, and more valuable, knowledge than studying those primates who live alongside us” (Fuentes 2012).  While this perspective is much debated in the literature, I see the importance of this support behind the study and management of increasingly more commensal species.

Most of the human-nonhuman primate conflict literature focuses on great ape conservation, yet perhaps baboons are the center of the contention.  Baboons are extraordinarily resilient and have evolved to inhabit almost every ecological niche in Africa.  As a result of this plasticity, there is much evidence that they frequently cause the most damage in reaction to human encroachment.  As a counter-strategy to the increase in human population density, baboons have successfully adapted their foraging strategy, adjusted ranging patterns, changed sleeping site locations and overcome the fear of humans.  Of course this highly adaptable nature has enabled these animals to persist in the face of human incursion, yet has resulted in a more commensal environment.

As you would expect, managing commensalism is not an easy task.  Some management strategies have been employed to cull baboons; though this has been shown to be quite ineffective, as more baboons will simply move into the area and continue to reproduce.  What we need is to properly manage human waste disposal and protect cars, homes, gardens and crops from baboon penetration.  Monitoring, guarding and chasing are quite ineffective, as these strategies cost time and money.  Methods such as alarms, use of leopard dung, and taste aversion have also been unsuccessful.  The best approaches have been better community education, baboon translocation, maintaining artificial food patches, planting crops away from forest edges, and planting less attractive crops.

Crop raiding greatly affects baboon demography, sociality, health and reproduction.  Crop raiders experience faster growth rates, achieve higher final weight, and females reproduce faster and have shorter inter-birth intervals; resulting in population growth and higher population density.  On the contrary, the more negative effects include a decreased activity budget, elevated cholesterol levels, higher incidences of wounding and aggression, and increase in social tension and disease transmission to and from sympatric primates.  It has been demonstrated that baboons have significantly higher numbers of fecal pathogenic parasites than their sympatric primate relatives.  Other diseases can be spread from humans to baboons (and vice versa), particularly those that manifest in humans as yaws and syphilis.  These diseases express themselves in sexually mature baboons as painful ano-genital ulcers*, often resulting in urinary tract sepsis, blockage and death.  Clearly there is a need for better management and stringent boundaries between these two primates. 

The literature on commensal baboons has continued to grow over the past few decades, yet much work is still to be done if we are to mitigate more loss on behalf of both parties involved.  More effort needs to be placed on baboons before they face endangerment when management may be too late. 

*I didn’t need to read that at 9 in the morning -JAD

%d bloggers like this: