The day I was outsmarted by baboons

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A young baboon cuddles up to its mother.

I have seen my fair share of roadkill inside Kruger National Park. It is absolutely despicable and more often than not, avoidable. One can understand the odd chameleon, small snake or bird that might get clipped by accident but for some of the larger animals, driver carelessness and speeding are usually to blame.

Generally speaking, it seems that these strikes occur just before gate closing time, when drivers have miscalculated their distance to the nearest exit point and feel the need to speed rather than pay any fines that may ensue from leaving the gate a little late. Back in 2012, a delivery driver hit SEVEN impala whilst speeding and clearly not concentrating on the road.

During a recent trip to Kruger Park, I saw the most horrendous scene, an image that will stay with me forever.

I was guiding a student group and we had had the most incredible day in the Park. The day had been fruitful and we were fortunate enough to see the “Big Five” (Cape buffalo, Elephant, Rhino (White in this case), Lion and Leopard) in one day. The group were on an absolute high. It was 17:40, we had 20 minutes to reach the gate before the 18:00 gate closing time. We were about 15Km away from Orpen Gate. It was going to be tight but driving at the upper speed limit, 50kph, we would make it.

I had just explained to the student group this was the time of day when people started to drive at crazy speeds, when animals were more likely to become victims of a road traffic accident. At that moment, we came around a corner to see a troop of baboons scattered across the road; some on the grass verges, some in the trees on either side of the tarmac. Then I saw the three in the road. My heart sank.

There were three young baboons sprawled out across the tar. One lay completely motionless, the other two lifted a limb each, slowly, with huge effort. I stopped the vehicle and watched, in absolute horror. Tears filled my eyes immediately and my mind began racing. I was immediately angry; how fast do you have to be driving to hit a baboon? Who shall I report this to? Are they in pain, should I finish them off, bringing an end to their suffering? I lacked the courage to terminate their suffering; how on earth would I do it anyway? I decided to drive past them, to push towards the gate. I would report the accident there.

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Intelligence is in the eye of the beholder.

I apologised to the students for the sight before them. We slowly edged towards the horrendous scene. I tried to give as wide of a berth as I could. I didn’t want to add any more stress to their painful last moments. The baboon on the furthest right still remained absolutely motionless. As we were level with them, the casualty closest to the vehicle slowly turned its head and its eyes met mine, “I’m sorry” I mouthed through the window.

Hook, line and sinker

At that moment, it jerked its body away from the vehicle. I felt terrible. I was adding more discomfort to the poor primate and it was using the last of its strength to move away from the car. Nope. No it wasn’t. Like a well-rehearsed dance troop (no pun intended) all three young baboons jumped up in unison, turned to the vehicle, let out a little shriek and ran off into the bush. I swear one was even smiling, mockingly. “What the?!” I exclaimed, “Did I just get punked by a baboon?!”

Suddenly the harmony of sniffles and chorused repetition of the words, “Ah shame, poor things”, from the back of the vehicle turned into uncontrollable laughter. I felt like a right fool. Outsmarted by baboons.

To this day, I don’t know what they were playing at! I am sure this is a learnt behaviour that has ended fruitfully for them in the past. Perhaps playing dead, causing vehicles to stop, acts as a decoy for their baboon buddies to raid any open car windows for biltong and crisps? I don’t doubt for one minute that there was a method to their madness. It was too well-rehearsed, too well orchestrated and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

Baboons are incredibly clever animals but I underestimated them.

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