Nov 27 2009

by Julian Saunders

A shorter version of this article was published in the Cape Argus, 16 October 2009.


Translocating baboons off the Peninsula: Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

I recently argued the need for a baboon sanctuary on the Cape Peninsula (Cape Argus, 16 October 2009). Since then, I have been asked to discuss a popular alternative strategy: the translocation of baboons off the Peninsula. Generally people wonder why this is not the perfect solution. I have to agree: it does sound good. Unfortunately, however, reality is often a bitter pill. And when it comes to translocating baboons, it must be swallowed in its entirety.

Translocation is a conservation strategy used to protect endangered species from extinction, repopulate areas with wildlife, and reduce human-wildlife conflict. It is highly invasive and is thus typically employed to protect whole populations or entire species only. This entails prioritizing the well-being of the majority over that of the individual.

The new Dispersing Male Protocol adopted by the Baboon Management Team focuses on what to do with repeatedly dispersing, raiding males that do not successfully integrate into new social groups on the Peninsula. For these males, the options in the protocol are sanctuary, translocation or euthanasia. However, at present there is no sanctuary on the Peninsula and translocation into wild populations has been red flagged by Cape Nature’s Wildlife Advisory Committee. The decision to resort to the third option, euthanasia, has met with stiff opposition from members of the public and welfare groups, who consider translocation off the Peninsula a means to save these males. The compassion demonstrated here receives no argument from me. However, the biological reality is not as simple as moving a baboon to a wild setting to live freely. Rather, this approach poses risks at many levels: to the population, to the troops involved, and to the translocated baboon.

The overarching issue at stake is that translocation of a baboon off the Peninsula entails prioritizing the well-being of a single individual over the well-being of the population into which it would be moved. If individual baboons are saved at the price of concomitant risk to other baboons, then this would be a folly of heart over head.

But is there really a risk to the receiving population? Unfortunately, yes. Hence SANParks, Cape Nature, and IUCN all caution against translocation as a conservation strategy. These organizations have clear guidelines for when to invoke translocation and the Peninsula baboons do not meet these prerequisites. This cautious approach to translocation exists because it can have many unintended consequences. Moreover, the translocation of baboons that have learned to forage on human foods is potentially even more complicated.

First, what are the benefits of translocation to the receiving population? A robust population with healthy gene flow, good genetic diversity and no serious diseases would receive little benefit from a translocated Peninsula male.

On the other hand, what are the costs? Among other things, a Peninsula male potentially brings with it two dangerous elements: disease and raiding behaviour.

There have been confirmed cases of human pathogens (TB and worms) in the Peninsula baboon population, and cross transmission of other virulent pathogens can occur between humans and primates in general. Prolonged exposure of Peninsula baboons to human refuse further elevates the risk of disease transmission to outside populations.

Capetonians need no reminder that baboons like human food. These baboons are smart and they have learned that the presence of people usually means the presence of easily acquired food. They have also learned crafty techniques to obtain such food, be it from a hiker's backpack or from a refrigerator. Being smart, baboons are even quicker to learn these tricks when other baboons are already employing them. So, if we take a baboon with known raiding behaviour and place him in a troop that does not raid, he will likely seek out human food, raid, and pass along this profitable foraging strategy. With translocation of a raiding baboon, therefore, we also risk translocating raiding behaviour itself into wild troops.

These are two of the academic reasons to be wary of translocating baboons. Frankly, these risks alone should be enough to ward us away. But this is a heart issue; we want to save the lives of baboons, and as such, academic arguments sometimes fall short. So let's see what there is to feel good about when translocating a baboon.

Talk of moving a male baboon off the Peninsula and releasing him in a wild setting creates a glorious picture. I too love the image. But I have been studying baboons for a long time and I know that this picture is far from harmonious. A baboon released in a foreign environment will likely be terrified and his stress levels will skyrocket. Moreover, he will most certainly not be warmly embraced by the locals of his species. Why? Male chacma baboons have a strictly-enforced dominance hierarchy and the alpha male gets first rights to ovulating females. Males will defend this enviable position to the death. The arrival of a new male in a troop will also impact females, who will also suffer from increased stress and even miscarriage. An added risk is that of infanticide, a common sexual strategy in which a newly immigrated baboon male kills infants, thereby hastening their mothers into reproductive condition and speeding up the propagation of his own genes.

Let's do the simple math here: out of compassion we can translocate a single male into a wild population and maybe save one life. But, in so doing, we may jeopardize the health of the entire population and, at the troop level, we risk major social upheaval, injuries and death. In my moral accounting, this is not a balanced equation.

Some might argue that we are only mimicking a natural process – baboons enter new troops, fight and hurt one another all the time. However, the 'natural behaviour' of baboons does not include teleportation hundreds of kilometers away from one’s natal troop into alien surroundings. Male dispersal in baboons is already costly for social and ecological reasons, and by moving a baboon into an unfamiliar area with unfamiliar troops, we are exponentially increasing these costs. Moreover, while nature may be red in tooth and claw, are we really supposed to exacerbate the red? Think about roosters, which fight each other naturally, yet it is illegal and wrong for us to pit them against one another in cock fights.

Is it conceivable that we could translocate a baboon out of the Peninsula and avoid many of the above problems? Yes it is. But there is a gauntlet to be run with every translocation. How many times can we safely pass through this gauntlet before we incur a large scale problem? And if this problem does materialize, who will clean up the mess? The onus will fall upon Cape Nature, who caution against translocation in the first place and who are promoting a responsible approach to baboon management and conservation. It's all too easy to shout loudly for something if you do not have to clean up the spill.

If the aim is to save life, translocation risks more lives than it saves. As a conservation strategy, moving baboons off the Peninsula exposes populations to risk and offers few benefits. Why take the risks with such minimal rewards? There is no moral high ground here.

Translocation does have a role in baboon management. This may involve bringing much needed genetic material onto the Peninsula from outside populations. Here, the benefits outweigh the costs and the well-being of the entire population is at the forefront. Cape Nature has given preliminary approval to bring baboons onto the Peninsula and work is underway to minimise the risks associated with this endeavor.

The opinions in this article have been endorsed by the following local and international scientists: Prof Cliff Jolly (New York University, USA), Prof Jane Phillips-Conroy (Washington University, USA), Prof Larissa Swedell (City University of New York, USA), Dr Justin O'Riain (University of Cape Town), Dr Jacqui Bishop (University of Cape Town), and Esme Beamish (University of Cape Town).