As baboons and monkeys are slaughtered in Magaliesberg, we desperately need to find our humanity again
Jay Naidoo - Daily Maverick

As you read this, global attention is on COP15, the world’s biodiversity conference in Montreal, Canada. We are using the resources of 1,6 Earths and the ecosystems that sustain life cannot keep up with our demands. An estimated one million of the world’s eight million species of plants and animals are facing extinction – while baboons are being culled in the Magaliesberg.  

The single focus of COP15 is on how to respond to the scientific data that we are experiencing a dangerous decline in nature caused by humans. 

Surely if our survival is all interconnected, then we all – 8 billion of us humans – have to make an earnest effort to respond intelligently and with compassion in big and small ways to deal with an ecological disaster of our making. 

I live off-grid in the Magaliesberg mountain range. It is one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth (more than 2 billion years old), housing the Sterkfontein Caves, otherwise known as the Cradle of Humankind. These caves have given us the oldest fossils of the journey of the hominin species, our now extinct bipedal ancestors. We are Homo sapiens which, loosely translated, means human with wisdom and intelligence. So important to the world is the Cradle, that UNESCO declared the Magaliesberg Biosphere as a Protected Natural Environment in 1993. 

When I heard of a plan being put into place last week to kill male baboon leaders and cull monkeys that have been part of this ecosystem long before humans in the Magalies biosphere it shocked me. 

What shocked me even further is the crass attitude towards baboons and monkeys, who are hunted as a sport and many farmers see them as a nuisance to be eliminated. This persecution, according to conservation guidelines, manifests in their regrettable label of “species of least concern”. Which means that it’s simply too easy to get rid of what is seen as “problem animals”.

Another glaring oversight in public policy is the lack of protection of many species of smaller wild animals, including jackals, brown hyena, mountain reedbuck, bushbuck, and klipspringer. The numerous kloofs with crystal-clear streams, waterfalls and pools in the biosphere are home to more than 150 bird species, including three breeding colonies of the Cape vulture and a variety of other raptors such as the black eagle, as well as kingfishers, crimson-breasted shrikes and the elusive African finfoot.

Baboons are an integral part of this ecosystem. They are curious sociable primates who have strong personalities. Like humans, baboons and monkeys have a range of more than 30 distinct and different vocalisations for communicating with each other. 

Like humans, the bond between mother and infant baboon is very special. Baboons have coexisted with human ancestors for many millions of years. The oldest baboon fossil is a skull found in South Africa that is thought to be two millions years old.

Baboons and monkeys are the subject of much of the local mythology and folklore of indigenous people. One of the greatest African prophets, Ubaba Credo Mutwa describes baboons as an integral part of our ecosystem. They play a critical role in seed dispersal and regeneration. 

So important were baboons that across the continent along the Nile Meridian which birthed us and all biodiversity, they were considered sacred in our past. According to The Universal Book of Mathematics, the Lebombo bone, discovered in Swaziland, considered the oldest calendar of the world, dating back more than 40,000 years, was inscribed on a baboon fibula as was a later calendar, the Ishango Bone.  

The baboon was revered in Ancient Egyptian culture, being admired for its wisdom and intelligence and a symbol of the god Thoth, and was depicted as a guardian of the Universe. In India the monkey god, Hanuman, an avatar of Lord Vishnu is the faithful follower of Rama who represents pure consciousness of the Divine Self. It is venerated by hundreds of millions of people.

Baboons become dangerous when humans cross the line by feeding them and not disposing of food waste in an appropriate way. A key component of biological balance is education of humans. We have to learn to coexist with animals, as we did for thousands of years before colonialism. 

The concept of ubuntu helps define true African community identity, and signifies that the wholeness of Africa can only be complete when human-spiritual-nature alignment is achieved. 

For a country that prides itself on protecting all biodiversity as a central plank of our economic and social policy, this is a prerequisite of success.

Ecology is a concept that supersedes human logic and a narrow focus on human needs. As we reflect on our past 28 years of democracy I, and 60 million fellow South Africans, must ask ourselves what is it that we missed? What do we have to unlearn? And what do we learn anew? 

Global legislation today has begun to recognise that true governance depends on restoring our right relationship with Mother Earth. The core of our challenges is not a baboon problem, but a human problem that goes to the core of what it means to be human.

That our unrelenting consumerism has created a climate crisis is no longer imaginary or only in the realm of scientists. It is our day-to-day reality. Human health is irreversibly tied to environmental health and that includes the health of wild animals.

Our systematic slaughter of keystone species predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah has upset the ecological balance as we encroach more aggressively on the natural habitat of such species. 

With private ownership of much of the Magaliesberg mountain range and setting up of fences, we have restricted the historical trails of these species. And now the science is clear on how wild animals are critical in rewilding river systems and enriching soil nutrient content, seeding biodiversity in order for us to produce healthy and nutritious food. 

Communities living with wildlife should be placed at the centre of our thinking, with a focus on enhancing human-wildlife coexistence embracing a regenerative principle central to true conservation. We have to learn how to manage the baboon/human interface. 

When my three-year-old grandson, Kana, first came here as a toddler, he was fascinated when we took the time to explain to him that we live in the home of baboons and monkeys. He learnt to respect them. He has named our home here, Maison des Singes, Monkey House and he is always so excited to come here and see them.

Ultimately we have to get away from this model of fortress conservation and work collaboratively with communities, schools and NGOs like Baboon Matters and other relevant stakeholders including government, business and farmers, to build a roadmap to a dynamic and thriving relationship of mutual respect between human communities and these amazing sentient species with which we should coexist.  

We have a remarkable opportunity to redefine this relationship. A working group of all stakeholders convened by government should be set up. And public hearings held to ensure a proper roadmap for the future baboon/human interface.

In slowing down drastic action and thinking laterally, we can play our custodianship role and in doing so regain our humanity. DM/OBP

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