Why is it that watching baboons interact is so appealing to us? Is it because they are so similar to us in what they do that it is as if we are watching ourselves from a distance? Here a young baboon is in a world of his own as he plays with his mother’s tail.
Baboon sexuality Words and pictures by Leigh Kemp
Baboons are fascinating to watch and on many occasions they have provided a highlight during game drives. I have often wondered at our fascination with their behaviour and have come to the conclusion that it is a deep seated reminder of the innocence we as a developing species have lost.
There are many traits in baboon behaviour that are very similar to ours; it is in these similarities that we find amusement (or is it maybe embarrassment?) as they make us reflect on our own nature as a species.
The baboon trait that mostly resembles human behaviour lies in their sexual habits. I have observed females flirting with males, males making moves on females in all stages of oestrus, males becoming aroused when females are grooming them and, on a number of occasions, masturbation. Although I have seen a number of species’ males self-gratify, it’s in baboons that this is most noticeable.
Females swell around the back side when they are in estrous. In this state they are mounted by any male that has the urge at the time. These males will be chased away by a dominant male when he is close by. Flirty females are sometimes noticed in a troop.
One very cold winter’s morning in the Okavango Delta, I observed the flirty behaviour of a particular female in a troop. The female began her frisky morning by flirting with the troop’s dominant male who was seated and minding his own business while he watched over the floodplain. When the alpha male showed no interest in her she moved on to other males.
The female systematically went from male to male sticking her not-yet-fully-swollen back side in their faces; the males,in turn, showed no interest in her.
After unsuccessfully garnering any interest from various males, the female resumed flirting with the dominant male. Again he showed little interest. The female backed a little closer, finally receiving some attention, as the male casually stuck out his arm and inserted his finger into her swelling nether regions. She squealed in shock and turned to stare at him before she ran off. The male baboon simply resumed his pondering.
She backed a little closer until he casually stuck out his arm and inserted his finger in her swelling nether regions.
Grooming is and important part of the baboon social interaction and it is often used to calm a volatile situation. Although the grooming involves picking parasites and scabs off each others bodies the act provides a great deal of pleasure to the recipients. On many occasions this pleasure manifests in sexual stimulation and baboon males often get an erection during the grooming process.
Males are stimulated by the sight of a female with a swollen backside and will attempt to mount the female if higher ranking males are not in the vicinity. At the height of the females’ cycle the dominant male will keep all others away from her. This may seem a very casual sexual behaviour but it is orchestrated to allow the strongest genes to survive.
Sexual self-gratification is not something that is associated with animals (except for humans) but I have observed it a number of times, the majority of times in baboons.
Are animals capable of thought or are their actions based on instinct? I know many subscribe to the latter but I have seen one incident that has me convinced that there are animals capable of thought and even contemplation.
The incident that convinced me of the notion that baboons possess the power of thought occurred at Khwai North Gate in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. In many camp-sites across Africa, baboons are a menace when it comes to stealing food from campers. There was a male at North Gate that was particularly insistent and it became a battle of wills to keep him away. I was running a safari parallel with colleague, Brodie Poole. Brodie tirelessly tried a number of methods to outwit this persistent baboons.
Back then, the rubbish bins in public camp-sites were made of mesh, making it easy for the baboons to pick pieces out. To curb this behaviour, Brodie began to set the rubbish alight inside the bin. This seemed to work. That is, until the male eventually figured the barbecue-bin out. The baboon began pushing the bin over, then rolling it on the ground. With each roll something crunchy and edible would fall out.
Brodie’s next plan was to tie a ski rope to the bin. He threw the other end of the rope over a branch, and hauled the bin to a height out of reach of the baboon. It was not long before the baboon ambled over and after a few jumps at the bin realised he couldn’t reach it. The baboon looked at the situation for a few minutes and, after a brief glance at the spectators, climbed the tree, walked along the branch to the rope and pulled the bin up to meet him.
This is not instinct. This is an example of careful thought.
On numerous occasions I have observed baboons calming and staring into the evening sky in contemplation.
It has been noted that sunsets have a similar affect on baboons and humans. Baboons are diurnal, this means that the fading of the day brings with it the daytime alarm-call to get to safety.
And yet, I have often seen baboons sitting on their rear ends and staring into the sunset, as if they were calmly contemplating something. The only bit that seems to separate humans and baboon behaviour in this particular ritual is a sundowner drink.
Baboons and water
I studied a troop of baboons in the Okavango Delta for over a year. The troop roosted in the trees on an island across from the lodge and every morning would move onto the main island, returning to their roosting spot in the evening. It was at the time of the arrival of the flood waters that interesting behaviour was observed – the reaction of the individuals of the troop to water.
The water levels of the seasonal floodplains of the delta vary from year to year and season to season and it was fascinating watching the reactions of the individuals in the troop when it came to crossing the flooded plains. They would always use the same crossing point and there was a great deal of ‘discussion’ at the edge of the water before the first baboon would make the first move.
The reactions depended on the level of the water. If the water was low all the members of the troop would walk across on all fours, but as the water rose individual traits would surface.
There was a narrow channel in the middle of the floodplain that posed a problem to some of the individuals when the water was high. Some would attempt to jump across, landing awkwardly, others would try to run across on all fours while others stood up on their hind legs and simply walked across. Young ones would be soaked as they clung to their mothers, screaming until they got to the other side.
I got to thinking as to how the individuals decided on the easiest way to cross and why there was such a variation within one troop? Was it trial and error from a young age?