While on a walk to see baboons, Samantha du Toit reflects on their female hierarchy system and how this dominance relates to human society
We reached the troop of baboons just as the sun was beginning to peak above the hills in the distance. A few early risers were coming down from their sleeping site in the fig trees by the river while others were still curled up on the branches, resisting the moment of awakening as I had half an hour earlier. Sisco, a local Maasai who has spent the last five years following and studying the troop, told me where to stand and how to behave so as to be accepted as ‘safe’ by them. His presence and the fact I was wearing a cap like him also let the troop know that I was no threat.
Growing up in Kenya camping and picnicking in National Parks, my childhood memories of being this close to baboons were in no way pleasant and my first walk with Sisco was somewhat unnerving to begin with. I however quickly realised that joining a troop completely in their natural habitat, who were not in any way accustomed to associating with humans, was a different thing altogether. I was soon absorbed in watching in complete fascination at the live drama that unfolded before me.
A lot of things surprised me about baboons as I sat there watching and learning from Sisco. The first thing I noticed was a tiny baby, still black in colour meaning that it was less than six months old, sitting all by itself on the plains far from the others with no mother in sight. It seemed very content playing with little bits of grass and putting things in its mouth and then spitting them out. When a large male came by, the baby happily hopped on to its back and off they went. Some distance away, I was drawn to a scene where a baby of similar age was having a little tantrum. Its mother, who seemed thin, tired and somewhat unhealthy, was trying to put the baby on to the ground but the baby was vocally resisting, insisting on being carried.
I had so many questions about the two seemingly different temperaments and situations surrounding these two babies. Sisco explained that baboon troops are actually arranged around a female hierarchy. Females pass on their rank to their daughters and higher ranks are more dominant. What I had witnessed was the result of this rather regal system. The first baby was the youngest daughter of the dominant female of the troop. The perks of being at the top of the ladder were that the mother had access to the best food, the ‘best’ fathers and the best caregivers. Her baby had similar privileges and the male that I had seen pick her up was in fact her mother’s closest friend and consort at that time. The other baby, in comparison, was the daughter of one of the lowest ranking females so the story was the opposite. Her mother’s overall state was a result of being constantly denied access to the best food, mates and social support. In turn, her daughter was possibly malnourished and insecure.
I could not help reflecting upon how perhaps this seemingly unfair scenario was all too common within our own human societies. Was this therefore something inherent in how we have evolved? How was I to explain to my children where they stood in the privilege hierarchy? Where did I stand? Do we remain in the rank we were born into? Was there always to be a ranking system or could we step out of it?
As the morning progressed, Sisco was able to tell me how to look for signs of kinship, friendship, courting and arguments, as well as looking for how the troop was deciding where to go for the day. As the heat became oppressive, the baboons made their way to the shady banks of the river to rest. I in turn made my way back to camp, reflecting upon what I had seen and looking forward to the next time I would be able to walk with the troop and perhaps take my children with me to learn about these intelligent and complex animals for themselves.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.