Baboons are one of my favourite African species; they are mischevious, highly intelligent and always entertaining to watch. We have a troop of baboons who roost in the trees above our cottage in Mfuwe, and I’m always surprised to hear their incredibly human-like coughing echoing from the treetops in the middle of the darkest nights!
Another interesting aspect of baboon behaviour is the fact that sometimes when a male is being threatened by a larger male, he will resort to taking a baby baboon as a hostage. He will do this in the knowledge that the threatening male will be much less likely to attack out of fear of harming the youngster, especially if there is a good chance that the young one is his direct offspring.
It is not uncommon, during a ruckus, to spot a baboon running off, with a baby tucked under his arm, followed by another male, and finally the anxious screaming mother of the unfortunate hostage bringing up the rear!
Some years ago, my neighbour at Lake Kariba ended up adopting a few baby baboons, whose mothers had been killed for food by local villagers. His intention was to try and return them to the wild, but none of us knew how difficult it is to do this.
So through the neighbour’s best intentions I ended up with three juvenile baboon neighbors. One female and two males called Kelly and Davie. Kelly was younger than Davie but grew a lot faster and soon started to bully him relentlessly. At the time, I had a Staffordshire terrier called Joplin and she had just recently become a mum to six very naughty puppies.
Imagine my consternation when I came home one day to find only five puppies in their basket, with pup number six ten feet up a mopani tree, being cradled by Davie the baboon!
I didn’t know anything about this behaviour at the time and so was very confused, especially as it soon became a daily occurrence. It was very comical to watch Davie running along on his hind legs using his front arms to juggle the squirming puppy, but not so funny when he managed to haul the poor little dog high into a tree, and all I could do was hope that he would climb down without dropping it!
Soon Davie came to realise that if he used me as a shield, Kelly would never attack him. So it became a routine that when I came home from work, Davie would clamber down the tree, hand over his canine hostage, sit between my legs grooming me (I think he thought the freckles on my legs were fleas) and make rude faces at Kelly.
None of the pups ever came to any harm during the months that this status quo existed and in time all went off to new homes around Livingstone and Sinazongwe. We eventually released the baboons onto some islands in Lake Kariba with monitor lizards, antelope and the occasional elephant family for company. I do wonder if Davie ever tried his kidnapping trick again, and about the surprise he would have got trying to haul a baby elephant up a tree!