Baboon response

Dear Jeanette and similarly minded folks,

I have spent days considering whether or not to respond to Jeanette’s letter. Nothing I say will make any difference to her or you. But one of my greatest mentors – a lovely mad woman who ran a wildlife sanctuary – taught me that “everyone deserves a chance”, so I guess this means I should try.

I have never suggested that people who were not scientists must by default be morons. Some of my best friends are not scientists or morons. But science is a method, a powerful way of understanding the physical world around us. Science is not a moral system, but science without a system of moral guidance is very dangerous. Scientists interrogate the natural world, and provide information which is considered to be of national and often global interest. Because of this, we have to abide by strict rules. When we wish to make a claim about nature, our work is scrutinised by experts in the field who have sufficient knowledge to assess whether or not our observations are realistic. This is called peer-review. The data of the APIES group on the troop numbers, sizes and home ranges of Hogsback saamangos and baboons, which have been collected since June 2010, are currently being reviewed by experts prior to their publication in a South African wildlife journal. When the data and our interpretation of them are deemed valid by our colleagues, and the work receives copyright protection, they will be released into the public domain. Hard as it is to accept (and trust me, I lean dangerously towards post-modernism and pinko-liberalism), this is the process that will lead a judge or a magistrate in a court of law to assign more weight to my assessment of the dynamics of the primate populations than yours. When I stand up in court and say that your assumptions are not valid, the magistrate is highly likely to give me the benefit of the doubt.

I offered to share our data with anyone who came close to guessing the numbers of troops of monkeys and baboons in Hogsback, and the numbers of animals in those troops. None of you experts had the guts to hazard a guess. How secure are you, then, in your understanding of the situation? Do you even know the law pertaining to the killing of wild animals in this area?

You and I are of different faiths. I will never convince any of you of my view of the world, and you will never convince me of yours. (Consider it like the issue of consubstantiation and transubstantiation.) We can be sure of few things in this complicated world, but I believe NO amount of oil under the earth justifies the use of ONE cluster bomb; just like NO amount of berry or apricot jam justifies the use of ONE gin trap.  Berries and apricots are nice to eat, but they are aliens – just like azaleas. And the really important thing is: nobody’s life depends on them. There is no justification for them to take precedence over the survival of the local wildlife. The reason I don’t own a house in Hogsback is not because I am not committed to this place. On the contrary, it is because all my earnings go into furthering my dream of raising a generation of local young men and women who care as much about Africa’s biotas as I do. When I retire, I hope to die soon – because I have very few retirement savings. Mervyn Bloch called me neurotic for this view. I can live with that. I have been called worse things in my life.

So here is my story in brief. Despite the snide comments about my transience, I have been coming to Hogsback since 1959. My (very) English grandparents, Doris and George Sandys, owned “Pompey” along the Plaatjieskraal Road. My grandpa did not allow my grandma to drive their enormous old Austin, which spent its life sealed in the garage awaiting the weekly expedition to the Hogback Inn for Sunday dinner. My grandma hence grew vegetables. There were baboons that visited her property. She considered them one of the undeniable demonstrations that she was no longer living in soggy, dreary old England, and they got along fine. My grandma was a special person. She was one of the first professionally trained physiotherapists of her generation, and she nursed my grandad until he died of wounds incurred by the “civilised” war in the European trenches.

My parents were just as weird about animals. A wasp nest has hung over the front door of their house in East London for about the last 6 years. When I asked my dad about it, he said: “They don’t bother us, and we don’t bother them.” Now that he is gone and my mom is painfully alone, I consider the wasps as my mother’s personal protection service. Fifty years ago there were duikers and leguans in my parents’ back garden. We were about 10 minutes’ bike ride from the centre of the city. Now I see unscrupulous garage owners dumping old tyres and builders dumping rubble in the bushy area at the end of their road. There will never be wildlife there again. We’ll be lucky to keep a few hadedas.

Jeanette, you claim to be spiritual. So am I. My spiritual rebirth occurred about twenty years ago, when I gazed into the huge amber eye of an elephant matriarch through a car window, while her trunk explored the car interior for potential threats. She was escorting a mother elephant and her calf, and was on full alert. She gave us the all clear, and moved on. I found my cheeks were wet with tears, and I was not alone. She left behind her a car full of zoologists who had been reborn. Since then there has been a little spark in my heart that glows like an ember every time I see a baboon, a Knysna touraco, a crowned hornbill, a guinea fowl or any messenger of the world that was, that is dying because of our greed. I find it unimaginably sad that you have never experienced this connection.

So, in sum, the reason I cannot support your view is not because I am obtuse or stubborn, or because I don’t own a house here. Even with two salaries we can’t afford the prices you guys charge the Joburg dentists for their two-weeks-a-year getaways. I am a conservationist because it’s the right thing to do. Causing a person or an animal – even one you don’t like – to die slowly in agony is just wrong. The keynote of the universe is not greed, it is compassion. Jesus and I are on the same page here. The pre-Raphaelite pictures that portray him holding a lamb do not intend to identify him as a supporter of agri-business. That lamb could be replaced by a duiker – or (gasp) a baboon. The only thing I can be sure of in this crazy world is that failing to respect the earth that gives us life will cause the death of life, including humanity – first spiritually, and then physically. Baboons are part of an extremely delicate and complex ecosystem. How many bricks can you remove before the entire structure implodes? Well, we will know by the end of this century. Your side has won. I am so glad I will not be here to see the consequences.

I cannot convert you – but I can convert a new generation. Suffer the little children to come unto me.

But if you harm so much as a hair on the heads of the innocents, there will be consequences. Of that I can assure you.


Judith Masters
Professor of Zoology
University of Fort Hare
Private Bag X1314
5700 South Africa
Visit us on our APIES website at


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