I admit that I am very, very scared of baboons (given a choice, I’d rather square up to a snake) but I do accept that they have every right to be here. In the Cape, baboons constantly create controversy. On the Cape Peninsula, the Chacma baboon population consists of 11 troops who roam across the Table Mountain National Park. There is increasing pressure on their natural habitat and baboons have worked out that it is easier to get food from people than to forage for it on the mountain. So, these intelligent animals have learned to raid homes, break into dustbins and even steal food out of the cars and picnic baskets of naïve and unsuspecting tourists. With their large teeth, they are very scary, although they are not predatory and incidences of baboon bites are extremely rare.
These Chacma baboons have long been a problem in our vineyards. They eat the young buds in spring and return to feast on the ripe grapes in summer. This year the problem is sure to be worse than ever because of the drought. Our conservation conscious farmers don’t want to harm animals (it’s also illegal to shoot baboons) and so they have developed a range of strategies to keep them away. These include automatic air cannons that make a noise at regular intervals, rubber snakes, and CDs strung up on the trellises that supposedly catch the sunlight, flash, and scare the baboons. Trouble is the baboons soon work these out.
Legend has it that on Twee Jonge Gezellen, old man Krone planted Pontac on the borders of his vineyards. When the baboons came to eat the grapes, the red juice stained their hands and, thinking it was blood, they panicked and ran back into the mountains. At Rupert and Rothschild, they reportedly line the vineyard with lion dung, obtained from a local safari park. On Oak Valley estate a guard was employed to throw stones at the baboons when they tried to steal the grapes. But that approach ended when a very upset guard radioed into the winemaker to report that the baboons were picking up the stones and hurling them back at him.
Some growers chase the baboons on quad bikes, and others employ monitors to make loud noises and even shoot the baboons with paintballs. That works to chase the troop away but then the alpha males watch from the mountain slopes and return as soon as the monitors leave the area.
Klein Constantia and many other farms have electric fences, but even these may not be enough. There is a video, filmed on a wine farm, of an alpha male throwing a baby baboon at a fence to check whether it is live and, presumably, how strong the current is. These clever creatures adapt their behavior and have learned to run through a multi-strand fence and endure the shock for the rewards of the nutritious delicious grapes. The Conservation Conflict Research Institute at the University of Cape Town recommend that a successful baboon-proof fence should include strong mesh that forces the baboons to climb and grasp the electric wires.
Cape Nature has suggested placing discarded fruit at the top of the baboon’s access route to a farm, in the hope that they will eat the fruit and not move further into the farm. A sacrificial offering of sorts!
Leopards are a natural predator of baboons, so the growth in the population of leopards in the mountains of the Cape winelands should help keep numbers in check. But outwitting the baboons remains a serious challenge for many South African vineyard owners.