Saturday, May 31, 2008

Life in Karoo Country... or, The Unbearable Sadness of Baboons

- Elizabeth Storey-Lawson -

Terrestrial wild-life on my former island home consists of three species of lizard, two tiny tree-frogs and an impressively outsized toad. I share my new Karoo farm with kudu, steenbok, duikers, springbok and the occasional zebra (fence-pushing poachers from a neighbor’s game reserve) all of which graze alongside the sheep.

Our vegetable garden and fruit orchards are feasted upon by porcupines, aardvark, dassies, hare and massive, ancient mountain tortoises. (So much so that I have named these areas “Lawson’s Luncheonette”!)

Dusk brings sightings of bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackal, lynx, otters, and one shy water mongoose. Sight-unseen, elusive wild African cats and vervet monkeys also keep us company. The avian population, both transitory and resident, is a wonderment to visiting birders. Our newly acquired bat-house is proudly perched on the side of the shed although, at the moment, filled only with hope and expectant hospitality. We live in a thriving eco-environment.

Almost all of these creatures benefit from the classic “cute factor” – being thought of as either harmless or satisfying to our human need to identify pleasantly and a little paternalistically with the organic world. I gently geographically re-locate numerous mice, beetles and even terrifyingly pre-historic looking koringkrieks who have wondered into our domestic domain and begrudge, much less than my very hard working farmer husband, the sharing of our garden largesse.

But heretofore unbeknownst to me, at the very bottom of the totem-pole, lacking not a single ascribed adorable characteristic in the opinion of almost every South African I have spoken with, is the truly un-loved baboon. I am regaled with tales of theft, destruction, dirt and danger. The anthropomorphistic descriptions of their behavior are without exception those normally used for delinquent youths, rowdy drunks and deranged sociopaths! Bio-bigotry against baboons is deeply engrained.

Until recently, all of my exposure to these extraordinary primates has come during drives within nature reserves, along mountain roads and forays into uninhabited veld expanses. Their propensity for foraging at the edges of super-highways fills me with the deepest fears for their survival and I cringe at the memory of so many killed whilst dashing across roads. Their fearful expressions connate an unbearable sadness and alienation.

A fortnight ago the house water began to taste, to me at least, suspiciously ‘off’ and my endlessly accommodating husband agreed to check the large storage tank. Without rain for many months, we anticipated all sorts of potential bacterial imbalances.

Our first surprise was to find the cover inappropriately askew; the second was to peer down into the water-logged face of a young baboon who in his frantic attempt to assuage an overwhelming thirst had fallen into water too deep to vault back from!

Round and round he had swum for, we knew not, how long. Innate intelligence and amazing dexterity had enabled him to lift the cover; lack of depth-perception his undoing. He was well and truly trapped. A near-drowned non-aquatic animal is a most pitiful sight.

Initially, the insertion of a long pole only added to his terror and distress but a pantomime of ‘walking’ our fingers up and along its length was all that was needed to demonstrate the path to rescue and release!

Being too clever by half is not always an evolutionary advantage. (We humans should, humbly, give more credence to this cliché.) Perhaps the smartest thing an animal can do is to live on a farm whose owners, even if you are ugly and unappreciated, will always give you a ‘helping hand’.

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