Africa Geographic Travel

High baboon mortalities during Cape wildfires under question

Information provided by: Baboon Matters & The City of Cape Town 

A case by SANParks against Jenni Trethowan, co-founder of advocacy group Baboon Matters, has been dismissed in the Cape Town regional court. Trethowan was fined for trespassing in a restricted area shortly after the devastating March wildfires in Cape Town, when she entered the Tokai Forest to try to establish how badly the baboons had been affected.

high baboon mortalities in Cape fires

Baboons in devastated Tokai forest in March

Trethowan says the area she was in had not yet been closed, there were no signs alerting the public that the area was off limits, and it was clearly still in use. After being stopped by a SANParks official, Trethowan and her companion left, and were then confronted by ten SANParks rangers and two members of the SAPS in front of a nearby coffee shop. She believes that this was an attempt to intimidate her and a misuse of SANParks resources.

Founder of Baboon Matters intimidated by SAPS

Jenni Trethowan with SANParks officials and SAPS

She says, “I tried numerous times to get permission from SANParks, the SPCA and others to join daily monitoring walks, both during and after the fire, but even though other animal welfare NGO’s and concerned members of the public were given access, I was stonewalled. SANParks and Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS ) seem determined not to engage with us, in spite of our freely offered expertise gained over ten years of monitoring the baboons.”

Before Trethowan was asked to leave Tokai forest she saw enough to raise serious concerns around the management of the baboons during the fire. According to a HWS report, when their team left the area at 8pm on Tuesday, 4 March , the Tokai troop (73 baboons) had moved down off the mountain to a sleep site below the Tokai Arboretum. During the night the fire advanced rapidly, and when HWS returned the following morning they found the charred bodies of four baboons still in the trees, four badly injured baboons that were subsequently euthanised, and one infant that was presumed dead. In their March report, HWS stated that a total of 12 baboons in the Tokai troop had died as a result of the fire – almost 20% of the troop.

High baboon mortalities investigated following Cape fires

Baboon carcass found by Baboon Matters in March.

“My question is, why did the baboons not move when the fire advanced? It just does not make sense that they would not move to safety, especially when the area a short distance from the sleep site was unaffected by the fire. HWS says that the fire in the canopy advanced too rapidly, but that is inconceivable – the baboons would have been on high alert throughout the night,” asks Trethowan.

In the past, fires of a similar magnitude have had little impact on baboons – in the 2000 Silvermine fire one baboon suffered burnt hands, and in the 2008 Da Gama Park fire one juvenile baboon, which was injured before the fire, died.

Trethowan believes that the aggressive management tactics used by HWS is a possible reason that the baboons did not move. Baboon Matters received numerous reports from eyewitnesses at the fire that HWS monitors had used paintball guns on the baboons. “Left to their own devices, the baboons would have found a safe place, yet HWS saw fit to further traumatise the troop with extensive use of paintball guns, ostensibly to herd them away from the fire. We believe that this was completely unnecessary,” she said.

The HWS April report states that the remainder of the Tokai troop – around 60 baboons – are now foraging further afield from their usual range, towards Constantia. However, residents, security guards and farm workers in the area say that there have been very few sightings of baboons in the three months since the fire, and even then only a small group of between 10 and 20 animals.

Baboon Matters has released a video to which Cape Town’s baboon management teams have responded:

Response by Julia Wood, Manager: Biodiversity, Environmental Resource Management Department, City of Cape Town in the Constantia Bulletin:

The Baboon Management Team (BTT) introduced the use of aversive techniques such as paintball markets and bear bangers in August 2012 as part of the range of management techniques. The BTT have a protocol which covers the use of paintball markers, baboon rangers are permitted by CapeNature to use the paintball markers and the misuse of paintball markers is not condoned.

Should a member of the public wish to report incidents, they need to submit dates, times, location and the specifics of the alleged abuse. Against this background, the misuse of paintball markers on baboons during the March fires is categorically denied.

The HWS reports are entirely accurate. The troops move around a great deal and the Tokai Troop may well have been in the vicinity of Butenverwachting Wine Farm during various times since the fires.

The City of Cape Town veterinarians, SANParks and City of Cape Town firefighters, baboon rangers from the service providers (HWS) as well as animal welfare specialists (Cape of Good Hope SPCA and Four Paws International) were all working in the Tokai Forests during the fires.

On account of the dangers of smoke, burning logs and falling trees, the Tokai Forests were closed to the public during the fire and sign posts to this effect were immediately erected by SANParks in the aftermath of the fire. By Saturday March 7, signposts were erected on all major access routes into the Tokai Forests and SANParks rangers were stopping all unauthorised personnel from entering the forests.

On March 24, the Baboon Technical Team (BTT) confirmed that a total of twelve baboons in the Tokai Troop are confirmed dead, on account of injuries sustained in the Cape Fires.

The final tally of dead and recovering fire-injured baboons in the Tokai Troop is as follows:

– Four critically injured baboons have been euthanased.
– Eight dead baboons found deceased as a result of the fire (either charred or died of their injuries shortly after the fire)
– Eight adult male baboons continue to be monitored for distinctive round red patches on their rumps. The result of fire burn, these red patches are now scabbing and veterinarians confirm that they will heal.

At March 24, the Tokai troop was now confirmed to have 61 baboons in the troop – down from 73. The Zwaanswyk Troop has lost a juvenile and this is suspected to be from smoke inhalation. On March 24, the troop had 26 members.

The loss of baboons in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 6 March, when the fires flared up and expectantly swept through the Tokai Forests was a tragedy. Moreover, it deeply affected the team of animal welfare professionals, firefighters, baboon rangers and SANParks officials who devote their lives to protecting and managing Cape Town’s baboon troops.

The Baboon Technical Team categorically deny that there was a conspiracy to cull, remove or drive baboons into the fires during the 2015 Cape Fires.

Moreover, any suggestions that the relatively high death rate of baboons (12) in the 2015 Cape fires vs. the low death rate of baboons (1) in the 2000 Cape fires can be attributed to baboon rangers is scurrilous. The 2015 fires raged down to Level 1 through the Tokai Forests, whilst the 2000 fires did not go below Level 5 in the Tokai Forests.

In 2000, the baboon troops were much smaller, kept away from people and were living much further up in the mountain. By 2015, the baboon troops had been living in the Tokai Forests for a decade and this younger generation of emboldened baboons had never seen fire.

The records show that baboon tragedies in plantations during big fires are not that rare.

To find out more about the Cape wildfires, read: Life in the Ashes


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