Baboon High Noon: a fearsome battle in Somerset East
Late one October afternoon in 1905, reported Grocott’s via the Uitenhage Chronicle, Nicholas Hurter, a farmer, noticed a troop of chacma baboons settling down on a cliff above his homestead in the Vogelrivier region, southwest of Somerset East. Hurter’s farmyard dogs, aggravated by the troop’s noise, escaped from their pen and scrambled up the hillside. Dogs generally won’t win against baboons, so Hurter took his gun and headed after them. By the time he made it up the hillside, the dogs had caught the worst of it: several were dead and others had fled, wounded. One dog was still there, locked in a battle with one last baboon, “on the edge of a fearful precipice hundreds of feet high.” Hurter aimed a shot at the baboon, but only wounded it in the shoulder. It did not let go of the dog, and the warring pair rolled closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
Now out of ammo, Hurter picked up several stones and strode over to hurl them at the baboon, but before he could, “suddenly and unexpectedly, a tremendous male baboon, the largest [he]had ever seen in [his]life, came straight at [him]in a bold and defiant manner, his eyes gleaming with anger and rage, and his huge jaws working together as if in anticipation of the crunching performances that was in store.”
And a crunching was indeed in store: the baboon lunged at Hurter, severely gashing his leg, and then sank his teeth into his chest. Hurter tried to grab the baboon by the throat, but couldn’t make it let go of his chest, although it did eventually release that grip to try bite him in the throat. Hurter was in his sixties, and certainly outclassed in terms of dentition. Bleeding heavily from the leg and chest, his clothes in shreds, Hurter struggled against the baboon for nearly an hour, pushed ever nearer to the edge of the cliff.
As dusk began to fall, Hurter remembered that he had a pocketknife on him. Once he managed to get it out of his pocket and opened, it turned out to be a bad idea: the blade was too small to do much against the huge baboon, but it did irritate it further, and Hurter was bitten on the arm and face. But then, in a move straight out of a Boy’s Own Adventure annual, one of his dogs scrambled up the ridge and made for the baboon.
The baboon decided that being bitten in the rear was more than it would stand that afternoon; it released its grip on Hurter and “walked sullenly away along the ridge of the precipice, looking back all the while, as if undecided whether he should renew the attack upon [him]or not.” Hurter struggled home, ragged and bleeding, arriving home long after dark.
The Vogelriever area lies just above the Baviaanskloof, and Hurter’s farm lay in a valley between several high points – Aasvoelkrans, Gladdekrans, Vallkop, Boberg and Leentjie se Hang: all the sort of rocky highlands beloved of baboons. But even in 1905, baboons were under pressure in the area as farmers tried to drive them away from their crop and stocks. A century later, baboons are under even higher pressure as human habitation spreads further and further.
Chacma baboons are omnivorous and opportunistic, but in cold, dry periods such as the Eastern Cape inland winter and spring, their diets are more limited. At such times – when their territory cannot supply them with enough food, because it’s too small or too poorly-resourced – they move closer to food-rich human areas than they would ordinarily dare to; this is what is happening in the Western Cape at the moment. It is a myth that baboons are aggressive hunters: they will occasionally take small mammals, but their massive canine teeth are mostly for fighting among themselves. They’d just as soon avoid attacking anything else, and baboons generally only attack humans or dogs if they threaten them.
Baboons are not territorial either; they tend to have a home range, which overlaps with the ranges of neighbouring troops. They do not defend their territory, but dogs, which are a territorial species, definitely do – and this is where problems usually crop up. Baboons can indeed do damage to crops, houses, gardens and any dogs or humans foolish enough to push their luck, but it’s not mischief or aggression that makes them do this.