The White Island baboon roost was my favorite spot in the Okavango. It was an unusually tall and dense stand of trees dominated by ebonies and knobthorn acacias and located at the edge of a picturesque floodplain on the far side of White Island, a few kilometers from Baboon Camp. It was about as beautiful and remote a place as you could find in the Okavango. (Photo: the roost at sunrise)
During 1979 and the first half of 1980, having become increasingly cavalier about the dangers of the bush, I slept at this roost at least 50 nights - arriving by Land Rover, by motorcycle, or even by foot when necessary. Unlike the typical baboon troop that often changes roosts from one night to the next, the 70+ members of the White Island ("W") troop always slept at this roost. Perhaps they shared my fascination with the place, but more likely they felt just a bit safer there amidst the sprawling knobthorn trees.
I never sacrificed comfort when sleeping at the roost. My bed was a mattress with sheets, a pillow, and a blanket (when necessary), all enclosed in a protective mosquito net and placed on the ground next to the Land Rover (when available) under a gap in the canopy safe from falling fecal matter. I shared this site with a porcupine that often woke me up in the middle of the night while rummaging nearby and rattling its quills. The nights spent under the stars watching the silhouettes of the baboons above me and listening to the lions and hyenas in the distance were unforgettable.
During three of those nights leopards attacked the baboons. Another evening three lions came prowling below the roost at dusk and pinned me up a tree for twenty minutes. That sobbering experience renewed my respect for the bush but did not deter me from returning to sleep at the roost.
By early 1980 I had witnessed a decent number of lion and leopard attacks, not merely at the White Island roost. Camp troop and two nearby troops, X and Z, also came under attack by leopards at night. I managed to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night more than once to drive out and investigate a leopard-induced commotion. The conventional wisdom at the time was that leopards were the principle enemy of baboons throughout Africa, yet direct evidence was surprisingly limited.
During a visit to Gaborone, Botswana's capital, I had the pleasure of meeting Alec Campbell, who had served as Botswana's Wildlife Director before becoming director of the National Museum and Art Gallery. Alec gave me a tour of the modest yet exceptional museum and introduced me to their journal, Botswana Notes and Records, a publication of unexpected quality that included articles on all aspects of Botswana art, culture, history, and social and natural sciences. Alec was intrigued by my stories of the Okavango and he encouraged me to submit an article.
Although I did not realize it at the time, the manuscript that I sent to Alec would become the first ever publication dedicated to predation on any primate by large carnivores. In 2004, Dorothy Cheney, Robert Seyfarth and their team, reporting on 10 years of observations of the Camp Troop baboons (see here), confirmed and extended these earlier findings that leopards and lions are the main causes of mortality for adult baboons in the Okavango.
Observations of the White Island troop ended in the 1980's as the research effort focused on the more accessible Camp Troop. But I'll bet that if I have the good fortune of visiting the Okavango some day, I'll find the descendants of the White Island baboons roosting in that same grove of trees that gave me so many great memories.
Note 1. After submitting the manuscript I saw two more daytime interactions with predators.
Duing the first incident Steve and I were watching the Camp Troop baboons foraging through a relatively dense woodland. There was a tremendous outbreak of barking and screaming about 40 m ahead of us. We rushed over there to find a subadult male bleeding from a fresh slash wound along his chest (see photo). Blood and fresh leopard tracks were all over the scene of what appeared to have been a nasty fight. The male recovered from this injury.
In the second incident, on White Island, two adult males were threatening some animal that was in an isolated bush about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle along the edge of a floodplain. Most of the other baboons were in trees, some barking periodically, others feeding. My impression was that the baboons were mildly alarmed by something, but certainly not to the same degree as if they had seen lions.
I approached the two males, who were quite agitated as they faced the bush from just a couple of meters away. From inside the bush came a hissing sound, which I reckoned was that of a honey badger. Clutching onto my 12 ounce hammer, I stepped foward to try to see the badger through the thick foliage. I was close enough to touch the bush as I peered around looking for the source of the hissing sound. I soon realized, however, that my search pattern was too narrow; streching from one end of the bush to the other was a very large spotted cat.
Before I could even soil my pants, a leopard jumped out the back side of the bush and fled along the edge of the floodplain with half of W troop in pursuit. By the time I caught up with the baboons, the leopard was gone.
Note 2. Baboon roosts in the Okavango can be identified not only by the piles of fecal matter on the ground, but also by the presence of leopard claw marks on some of the tree trunks.
Note 3. Cheney, et.al., (2004) suspected that two Camp Troop baboons might have died of bites from deadly black mamba snakes. I had never really contemplated this possibility, perhaps blinded by my own fear of these snakes. To the right is a photo of a Cape starling mobbing a black mamba in one of Camp Troop's primary roosting trees.
I would also add lightning strikes to the list of possible mortality factors. My hut at Baboon Camp was located directly beneath C Troop's principle roosting trees. One night lightning struck those tall trees, sending a branch crashing to the ground and sending me leaping out of my bed.
The next morning we found adult female Minnie (CMN) sitting on the ground about 20 meters from my hut in an apparent state of shock with her infant clinging to her belly. She did not move the entire day, nor did she react when we waved our hands in front of her face. If any predator had visited camp, Minnie and her infant would have been an easy meal.
By the next day she had regained some movement and by the following day she had rejoined the troop. She suffered no obvious long-term effects from this apparent lightning strike.