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UCT's Baboon Research Unit (BRU) has paved the way for the Cape Peninsula's baboon population to be elevated from the status of a little known, much maligned population to one that may prove to be the benchmark for the successful management and conservation of primates in conflict with humans.
After more than 350 years of being threatened by habitat erosion, urban sprawl and agricultural activities, baboons and their habitat could soon be under less threat, thanks to the University of Cape Town's BRU who created digital maps showcasing this species home range. These maps have been accepted by Strategic Environmental Management Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEAD&P) in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, meaning that both of the authorities responsible for land use and development in the Cape Peninsula are now equipped with information about current baboon landscape requirements.
The maps form part of a PhD study conducted by Tali Hoffman under the supervision of Dr Justin O' Riain who heads up the BRU. The study was funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) through its associated trust, the Table Mountain Fund (TMF) and SANParks.
Hoffman says: "This project is the first population-level study of primates to be conducted at such a fine-scale and has important conservation implications for all wildlife populations that are being displaced through habitat loss and fragmentation."
Thousands of hours were spent collecting data in the field as well as sourcing data from GPS-tracking collars. Together these produced over 25 000 GPS points which were used to build the baboon home range maps.
While these maps may not prevent further erosion of natural habitats, they do allow for all interested and affected parties to have their say on future transformation of baboon home ranges. According to Hoffman, the involvement of land authorities at this level of baboon management could be the single most important piece of the baboon conservation puzzle on the Cape Peninsula
"If developers can motivate to the authorities why urban areas should sprawl further into existing natural areas then they must do this with the new 'baboon layer' in mind. These maps effectively empower the baboons by empowering the authorities that are ultimately responsible for their management," says Hoffman.
Five years ago managers of the Cape Peninsula baboon population were in the dark on basic information such as whether the number of baboons was increasing or decreasing. The inception of the Baboon Research Unit is thus arguably one of the most important events in the history of managing the Peninsula baboons. In five years, studies conducted by the unit have provided management with data on the population dynamics, genetics, parasites, spatial ecology, marine foraging, the monitor programme and measures to mitigate human-baboon conflict on the Peninsula.
Hoffman adds: "For too long we have assumed that baboons will be fine as long as there are mountains for them to hide in. The maps provided by this study tell a very different story and warn that failure to protect suitable low lying habitats within areas currently exploited by baboons will result in elevated human-baboon conflict. These maps therefore provide an important step in preventing an escalation of conflict and furthermore recognize baboons as part of the Peninsula landscape."