Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Guerilla war in Cape Town

 Stanley - Thursday

South Africa is a violent country with an astonishingly high murder rate, awful femicide rate, and, as is the case in many countries, warring gangs. Now, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, a new gang has emerged with a new leader.


Take a look at the leader’s current rap sheet:


April 2020: Raided five occupied houses in the small coastal suburb of Kommetjie (pronounced, more or less, Comma-key).

Little village of Kommetjie (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

May 2020: Broke through security fences 10 times, and tried to do so another 9 times. In most cases, he encouraged others to join him.


June 2020: Raided Kommetjie with companions 8 times.


July and August 2020: 15 intrusions into the little town.


Welcome to the world of Nkatazo (the isiXhosa word for trouble). Welcome to the world of a young male chacma baboon, known officially as SK11.


(For those who have difficulty pronouncing the word, he is also known as Kataza.)

Nkatazo  (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

Nkatazo is at the centre of growing hullabaloo in Cape Town, a four-sided hullabaloo, pitting residents, animal activists, authorities, and baboons against each other.


The residents:


When I lived in Knysna, I had my windows fitted with light-weight, UV resistant, polycarbonate strips, known as baboon bars. They are transparent and unbreakable. The reason I did it is because baboons love to forage for food in urban areas. Why try to survive in the wild? baboons ask, when stupid humans leave food all over the place where they live? The residents, on the other hand,  reasonably believe they should be able to leave food all over the place on their own property.


There are three main problems for residents in this story: first, access points to their homes can be damaged, such as sliding doors lifted off their tracks and the glass broken as they crash to the ground; second, baboons aren’t inclined to replace stuff they pull from cupboards in their search for something tasty and leave a horrible mess; and third, worst of all, if disturbed, the baboons have the habit of evacuating the entire contents of their bowels all over the house.

'Thanks for leaving the window open! (MINDEN PICTURES, CORBIS)

'I'll have some of that celery.' (MINDEN PICTURES, CORBIS)

 Baboons can also sense which humans are likely to cause problems. That is, people to be avoided. And those who won’t be a problem, like the pregnant woman in Kommetjie whom another baboon, William, visited (terrorized) five times before being euthanized.


Animal activists


There is a group of animal activists who love the troops of baboons that roam the 220 sq km Table Mountain National Park, which forms the centre of Cape Town. In particular, the Kommetjie activists, called Baboon Matters, paint Nkatazo as ‘a loveable rogue; a daring baboon revolutionary, constantly outwitting the City of Cape Town-appointed rangers employed to keep him out of urban areas. A guerilla, if you will.’ (Daily Maverick, 10 Sept 2020).


The Cape Town authorities regard the activists as much as a problem as the baboons.


The authorities


Needless to say, the Cape Town authorities have a responsibility to protect the residents of the city. In conjunction with scientists both local and from overseas, they have devised a strategy to keep the baboons at bay. They have formed a patrol group armed with paintball guns.

Paintball gun (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

'Come out with your hands up!'  (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

Justin O’Riain, a professor of ecology at the University of Cape Town, says that Nkatazo was a lowly male in the troop, who didn’t challenge the alpha male for the choice of the best females. Rather, he formed a splinter group by luring females into Kommetjie where there was ample food. As O’Riain says ‘(Nkatazo) is doubling down on pleasures and taking a small group of females to town where food is abundant, and he is having both his cake and copulations.’


The paintball patrols are run by a private company, Human Wildlife Solutions, under the project management of Dr Phil Richardson. Since the patrols’ inception, the percentage of baboon deaths has plunged from 52% to 14%


The baboon patrols have received both praise and criticisms from scientists. Jane Goodall said the approach was unnecessarily hostile, while international primate expert, Dr Shirley Strum from the University of California, after a visit to Cape Town, was ‘scandalised’ by what the activists were doing. She wrote The epitaph of these baboons will read: “Met an untimely end because activists could not face reality”.’


O’Riain asks: ‘How can it be that the only city on the continent that strives through the hiring of professional service providers to keep baboons safe from urban areas is held up as a heartless pariah?’


The baboons


I tried to interview Nkatazo, but when I arrived in Kommetjie, I discovered he had been ‘relocated’ to a different wilderness area in the National Park – an operation, apparently, accomplished secretly, with no prior publicity.


Had I been able to interview him, I am confident that Nkatazo would have claimed that humans had stolen land from the baboons and were now treating them as second-class primates. ‘I am willing to share our land,’ he would have said, ‘but all the thanks I get is being shot at with blue paint. And I hate blue!’

Playing with baby  (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

A home with a view  (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

Meanwhile, the Kommetjie activists have found Nkatazo in the Silver Mine area of the national park and are trying to lure him back to town. If successful, I’ll try again to meet him.

 (Photo: Alan van Gysen)

For my part, I understand the concern people have with baboons wandering around the suburbs. Baboons aren’t the most beautiful creatures, which I think contributes to the antagonism. They are also big and strong, and vicious looking.


On the other hand, if people were as smart as they are reputed to be, and didn’t leave food lying all over the place, in full view, the baboons would soon find different pastures. When I am in the bush and leave the bungalow, I always ensure that food is not visible to a baboon that may look through a window.

'Is there any food in there?" (MINDEN PICTURES, CORBIS)

I am interested to see where this story ends. If, indeed, it does.


(Thanks to Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick for her article #BringBackKataza: How the Cape went ape over a single baboon’ which was the inspiration for my blog.)


  1. Wonderful blog! Have to love a stroppy baboon!
    And there's a thread linking your blog to Kwei's. People know what to do. They just can't be bothered to do it. Or they say it's their right not to. Or that it's the other people who must change. Or...

  2. I think I am on the side of the baboons here. Are they allowed a political career? I see some similarities between Nkatazo and Boris Johnson.

  3. Is it Thailand where parts of some towns are overrun with gangs of aggressive monkeys?

    1. It is called Lopburi. The citizens complain that they have to live in cages while the monkeys roam free!

  4. I side with the installers a baboon-proof windows.

    On my first hour in the bush (in Botswana!!), a troop of baboons landed with a thud on the deck of the tent where David had dropped the his knapsack and disappeared into the loo. My friend Rosemary (who had taken many such trips) was nearby On her deck and terrified. I closed the screen door and shouted “Go AWAY!” at the critters. A male came and reached for the door. Rosemary was screeching: “They are dangerous. They can eviscerate YOU.” I stomped my feet HARDER, moving toward the door and shouted “GO! GO!!” The baboon grasped the screen door handle. In desperation, I switched to Italian. “VAI VIA!” The baboons ran away. The rangers later said that they get into the tents, go to the bathrooms and eat the toothpaste. Wouldn’t David have been surprised!

  5. My experience with baboons revealed superhuman strength that one dare not mess with. I once saw a baboon slowly peel a strip of chrome off the side of a car (when they had chrome rather than plastic) using nothing more than its thumb and forefinger (or whatever those digits are called on a baboon).