Friday, February 1, 2008

Baboons, baboons, baboons...Jan 31, 2008

You have to love baboons.

They make somewhat rowdy chimpanzees (that’s what some people think anyway) look absolutely tranquil by comparison. There is at least one troop of baboons that shares the home range of the Fongoli chimps. There are at least 100 individuals in this troop, and if they are like the baboons studied by Martin Sharman 25 or so years ago in Niokolo Koba National Park here in Senegal, they also exhibit a fission-fusion social structure. Unlike the “typical” chimp fission-fusion social structure, however, these monkeys come back together almost every night to a common sleeping site. (More about the apparently ‘atypical’ fission-fusion behavior of Fongoli chimps in another blog!).

At any rate, you can imagine that it is difficult for a troop of 100 or so baboons to hide – and they might want to do so in the Fongoli area, as they are eaten by some of the groups of people living here. Well, the baboons seem to have considered that a foregone solution, and a baboon troop is one of the noisiest bunches of animals you will ever meet – at least in my opinion (with my apologies to the many baboon researchers, should they ever read and take offense at this!).

Yesterday, I followed the party of 15 or so chimps I was with from their nesting site at what we call “Point d’eau” – it is the one permanent water source in their home range at the peak of the dry season (still a month or two away) aside from the Gambia River. After they spent some time out in the woodland, feeding on Keno flowers, they meandered back to the ravine here, which is a small patch of gallery forest where the water hole is situated at the very bottom.The large, noisy troop of baboons decided to drink here as well, and chaos ensued, as it often does when chimps and baboons meet at Fongoli (although one of my project managers has also seen play between young baboons and chimps, as they have at other research sites). Baboons give warning barks (as in predator alarms) to chimps, and there are chases back and forth among the species. It was hard for me to see what was going on in this particular case because I was sitting up the slope some, watching Karamoko (#9 male) sleep for what seemed like hours. Plus, the baboons are afraid of us, while the chimps are not, so often I just get a view of baboons hastily retreating.

In one case last year, the chimp party I was following definitely took advantage of my presence to further chase the baboons back. I was thinking to myself how impressive “our” chimps were although they were outnumbered by these pesky monkeys, when I saw three chimp males run screaming from an adult male baboon! Oh well. To give them credit, baboons do have massive canines, and an adult male looks almost as big as a chimp, although he doesn’t weigh nearly as much…

Another time I did get a better look at baboon and chimp interactions. In this case, a number of the Fongoli male chimps chased back baboons from an area in which they had been foraging. According to what I’ve read by Sharman, baboons in Senegal and chimps feed on many of the same foods (There really hasn’t been much research done on these baboons, Guinea baboons or Papio hamadryas papio, for all you budding primatologists – although there is a project underway by Julia Fisher, a German primatologist). Anyway, this particular encounter involved a subadult male we called ‘Nyegi’ (which means something like “naughty boy” in the Bedik language; this was because he used to follow researchers – especially male ones – and warning bark at us). Nyegi was giving his all in trying to chase baboons away. He threw a number of very large rocks at them. The chimps here throw rocks a lot in their displays, and these are not small stones – usually it takes me two hands to pick one up (see photo of Diouf shot by National Geographic photographer I posted here at left)! The baboons screamed appropriately, as they tend to do, which must have been very satisfying for Nyegi. Sadly, we haven’t seen Nyegi since last spring and he must have almost certainly died. He was a young adult, probably 15 years of age, and we were all excited to see him enter into the adult male hierarchy but never got to see it. Male chimpanzees almost never leave the community into which they were born, so we have reluctantly classified Nyegi as deceased.

To end this blog on an uplifting note though, at the end of the day, the chimpanzee party and baboons ended up sleeping in the same little strip of gallery forest above the water source. I don’t know how much sleep the chimps got – having slept near baboons myself while working in the national park - there always seems to be someone awake and screaming. It seemed like a good ending, though, so I'll imagine that all slept peacefully.

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