The chacma baboon is a very dynamic, adaptable and successful animal in the bushveld. They live in troops of all different ages and sizes; the troop is usually led by one or a small group of dominant males. The troop size can be anywhere from four to two hundred individuals! So, just like a pack of wild dogs or a pride of lions, baboons clearly need each other to survive. One important benefit of being part of such a big group is that each individual is surrounded by many eyes, ears and noses, all of which are well equipped for detecting danger. One sense that is especially well developed in baboons is their eyesight.
Baboons are often first to spot a predator in the area. For one, they have the ability to climb to the canopies of trees and sit there as lookouts for the rest of the troop; watch duty is usually performed by the males. Without getting into the science of their vision just yet, all it takes is to be there watching them as they alarm call at a threat like a lion or leopard walking extremely far away. I have been sitting in my vehicle watching baboons in a tree as they alarm at a leopard hundreds of meters away, further than we could certainly see… I knew this because other guides and guests were watching that leopard!
When a baboon sees a predator it lets out a loud, distinctive bark. They are intelligent animals and usually alarm call when a ‘real’ threat is around. Impalas, among others, are sometimes spooked by a warthog or a solitary duiker moving through the bush and alarm call as if it were a predator. Baboons, however, are one of the more reliable helpers when tracking the large cats!
Baboons have colour vision. Most mammals are dichromats, which means they have two types of functioning colour receptors – or cone cells – in their eyes. Primates are trichromatic, meaning that they possess three channels for conveying colour information. Baboons therefore see a wider variety of colours than most other mammals do. They need this vision to source the ripened fruits on a tree and to notice the pink colour of the rump of a female who is ready to mate. Humans are also trichromatic and see colour like the baboons (which I hope you’ve noticed!).
As I mentioned earlier, baboon troops will often have watchmen or sentries to look out for danger while the others are foraging. These lookouts will position themselves high up in the branches of a tree, on a termite mound or on any other structure available to them. When danger is spotted, the alarm is sounded and the others are alerted to the presence thereof. The troop may scatter and seek refuge in a tall tree. Once the predator’s cover is blown it will most likely move on without trying to hunt in that area, leaving the baboons safe yet again.
Baboons are incredibly resourceful and vigilant; they are a successful species in the bush and are very interesting to watch. They are also highly protective over each other and stick together in a tight-knit troop. If a leopard attacks a member of the troop, the rest of the group can be ferocious in their defence and attack or even sometimes kill the leopard in response.
There is a bit of a love-hate relationship with baboons at Londolozi, as they are naughty creatures, never passing up the opportunity for a free meal and often passing through the camps in an attempt to see what’s available on the buffet. We regularly have to chase them away, so over time they have become wary of humans. It can therefore be tricky to get a really great sighting of them from close up, since they will tend to move to what they consider a safe distance if we look like approaching them in the Land Rover.