The Life of a Baboon Researcher: Part II

By: Elizabeth Winterton

If you don’t like getting up early, don’t be a baboon researcher…

In my last blog I talked about camp and what it’s like to live in a tent in the forest. This week it’s the turn of the baboons.

We currently have 1 fully habituated troop comprising 60 individuals; 21 adult females and 7 adult males. The troop travels around 6km per day throughout their 6km2 home range of miombo woodland, chipiya grassland, and the occasional plain.

Work starts at sunrise with the walk to the previous evenings sleeping site, accompanied by your very own armed scout. Fortunately, on the whole the baboons sleep at the mushitus within a 15 minute walk from camp so it’s not a very arduous journey. Usually greeted by grunts and the sleepy faces of infants, work then begins. This mainly consists of collecting behavioural data on the adult males and females. We also collect GPS data, and have the delightful task of collecting faecal samples, although with their current diet of pods it seems their digestive systems have stopped functioning completely!

The 10 day blocks of research pass quickly with a mixture of all-day follows and 8 hour days split into morning and afternoon research, with a generous lunch break in between which generally comprises of downloading data, checking emails and editing photos.

On a typical day, the baboons wake up around 6.30am, come down from the sleeping site at 8am, feed for the majority of the day, and then return to a sleeping site by 5.45pm with you concluding work around 6pm. Due to the nature of their habitat, once the baboons have left the mushitu it’s pretty rare if you see all of them at once. Usually we get to see a maximum of 15 at a time if we’re lucky. So this means you spend much of the day walking around with binoculars clamped to your face identifying who’s who. Unfortunately the dense habitat and the relatively large home range means the baboons can literally vanish into thin air (our baboons would make excellent magicians!) and sometimes cannot be found for days at a time; again this is why you have to like walking as you can walk anything up to 20km per day looking for them!!

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Baboons crossing from the mushitu into the miombo woodland

However, when with the baboons it is truly amazing, especially as you get to learn about the different personalities and see relationships forming and strengthening. All the adult males seem to have their favourite females, for example, Mr Wizard is either with MJ or Clover, and Mr Cookies is with Loretta, Norah or Patsy, some females are intolerant of each other (Indigo seems to hate everyone!), whereas others appear to have a deep relationship. Infants in the process of being weaned are hilarious as they scream for their mothers to pick them up and let them ride on their backs, and the juveniles are just cheeky, stealing the young infants and play fighting with each other. 

It is a rather surreal experience being surrounded by a troop of baboons, and I frequently have to pinch myself, and remind myself that these are wild baboons (although a few in particular like to remind me of this themselves!).

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In the plain surrounded by baboons and puku

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Mr Cookies giving Loretta some T.L.C.

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A screaming infant

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