Baboons in the Dust

Dr Rich McFarland directs the Swebeswebe Primate Project (SSPP) on the Swebeswebe Wildlife Estate in the Waterberg.  Richard is currently based at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and holds affiliate faculty positions at UNISA and the University of the Witwatersrand.  Rich has been studying South African primates since 2012 and following seven years working with vervet monkeys and baboons in the Eastern Cape, turned his attention to the chacma baboons of the Waterberg…in the footsteps of Eugène Marais.

The SSPP is a widely international project, and has hosted student researchers from the UK, USA, Canada, Switzerland, France, and, of course, South Africa.  No fewer than 25 student researchers have been involved in SSPP research since 2019.  The team have habituated three troops of baboons on Swebeswebe to the point the dedicated team of researchers can follow them on foot, walking in and amongst the troops.  All the baboons have names and are followed from dawn to dusk, come rain or shine.  For up to 15 hours and 15 kilometres a day, the baboons are observed in their natural habitat, undisturbed, as the researchers follow collecting a range of behavioural and ecological data.  The overarching aims of the SSPP project are to examine the complex social system of wild chacma baboons and further our understanding of how baboon populations will fare in the face of climate change.

Baboons form ‘friendships’, and, as in human society, it’s the more sociable individuals that fare better, experiencing improved health and well-being.  Baboons rely on these social relationships to cope with the challenges they face, whether it be evading the clutches of a leopard, keeping warm at night, or simply having a nice groom on the cliff edge before bedtime.  Despite being a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List – given their ecological flexibility and ability to adapt to a range of environments – baboons are expected to suffer substantial habitat loss, experiencing a reduction in distribution largely underpinned by the increasingly warm and dry climates of Southern Africa.  Often seen as pests when confronted with human crops, trash cans and bird feeders, through their research on the SSPP, this team of researchers hope to demonstrate the value of baboons to the Waterberg ecosystem, worthy of protection, not persecution.