Baboons are intensely social mammals, who are constantly interacting with each other at every hour of daylight, and even a bit beyond.
If you give it a little bit of time and stop and observe these primates you are let into a whole world of fascinating dynamics.
Quite simply they reflect a lifestyle of chauvinism with a strict hierarchical system. All adult males which are older than five years of age outrank all females. Within the female group there is also a rank which is the rank they are born into. The female offspring will remain in their natal troop, while male offsprings, when they become independent, move to other troops.
The hierarchical system is pertinent to the group dynamics within the troop. One can often hear the shrieks and barks of nearby baboons before catching sight of them. Their calls are often seen as alarming to us due to their high pitched and somewhat similar cries of distress to a person or baby. However, these calls are quite literally their form of communication and are used to enforce their social norms. An infant baboon holds the rank of its mother and – like a monarchy – the eldest is of higher status than their younger siblings.
These ranks are continually enforced by superior individuals ‘bullying’ the lower ranked baboons.
It was interesting to watch a troop scurry through an open area recently, moving from one tree to the next with squeals and loud barks which echoed through the Leadwood trees.
What the baboons did not know is they were approaching a male lion which we were sitting near, only a few hundred metres away. When the troop got closer I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a strategy to their seemingly rehearsed movements. Baboons do tend to have a specific formation when on the move, which ensures that the females and young are in the centre, strong older males surrounding them, with higher ranked males ahead and behind them. This troop of baboons is a kinship group where females outnumber males. Each troop member has a certain ‘duty’ to perform and are enforced by superior ranked baboons to ensure they do so.
Chacma baboons are omnivores- often seen venturing through open grasslands eating grass seeds and bulbs or climbing up trees enjoying fruits from the canopies. They do also eat small mammals, invertebrates and birds as opportunity serves.
Baboons are often seen in the company of other herbivores such as impala, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and elephants. This is a mutually beneficial relationship as while part of the troop is feeding and foraging on the ground, capitalising on any flushed insects and exposed bulbs, the herbivores benefit from the baboon scouts that are placed in surrounding trees, keeping a watchful eye for any sign of predators.
I would suggest to sit with a troop of baboons for some time if you come across them to get an insight into their complex social dynamics. It really is rather interesting to see their basic daily routine unfold in front of you.
At times watching them play can be quite entertaining and even endearing, as they regularly groom each other.
These are wild animals though, and we must always remember that, rather than viewing them solely through our human lens.