Part of the Troop – Baboons of Makuleke

In my year and a half at EcoTraining, I have had the privilege to move around our different camps and experience the unique relationship between humans and the animals that frequently visit the camps. The experience that captivated me, is the troop of baboons in Makuleke. They spend their days interacting with one another in and around camp and then roosting in the big Nyala Berry trees at night.

In Pridelands we have the “Big-Tusker – Ezulweni” whose tusk almost touches the ground as he gently moves between the tents making his overwhelming presence known. In Selati we have the African Civets who come out at night to explore the new smells of the day, especially around the braai grill. Karongwe of course has the Spotted Genet who will tip-toe past you in search of insects and small rodents to feast on. And then last but not least the troop of baboons in Makuleke.

Those who have been lucky enough to visit Makuleke in the Northern Kruger National Park will immediately associate it with Baobab trees stretching across the landscape, the iconic pans that host our migratory birds as the seasons change, the confluence of the Levuvhu and Limpopo River, and the fever tree forests that make you feel small again.

Photograph © Christoff Els

On my recent visit to our Makuleke Camp, I shared a tent with head instructor Ross Hawkins which always leads to very insightful conversations as well as general banter talk followed by good laughs! Not many people know this but when lockdown hit South Africa last year Ross was alone in Makuleke camp for three months and had limited to zero contact with people. If you sit with Ross early mornings drinking coffee by the Nyala berry tree, he can tell you about almost every baboon as they descend down the tree to start off their day. “This one’s leg was broken a few months ago, but he seems to have recovered quite well”. This led me to believe that a strong bond was built with the troop of baboons in camp, not just in lockdown but throughout his entire time in Makuleke.

This sparked my interest and immediately that afternoon I went to go sit by the birdbath where the baboons spend most of their time before heading up the Nyala berry to roost. It wasn’t long before they arrived one by one. I felt the urge to get closer to them but it seemed that as soon as I made eye contact while walking in their direction, they would instantly move off showing that they are not comfortable with me. The last time I felt this kind of rejection was when I was the new kid in the grade 2 class, but I was determined to make new friends…

I then tried something that goes completely against our human nature and slowly walked closer with an indirect approach while completely avoiding eye contact, until I sat down on the ground. Suddenly we were at eye level and they were a lot more relaxed with me being amongst them. After realizing this I moved a bit more freely amongst them while keeping a respectful distance. By the next day, I could position myself perfectly to film them in a natural state where they are not influenced by my presence. What fascinated me the most was the youngsters who are so playful. They are constantly wrestling with each other, chewing on sticks, or even hanging from branches above the thatched roof.

Photographs © Christoff Els

They were most tolerant of me and allowed me to get very close to them. Almost like they knew I was filming them. What was also very interesting was how there was a definite rank amongst them as younger baboons would remove ticks from the senior bigger male baboons. The big male baboons were also not very tolerant of the younger males and every now and then a dispute would arise followed by screaming and a hot pursuit where they would chase younger baboons away. Between all the different shapes, ages and ranks were two newborn baboons tightly clinging to mom’s chest. The baby baboons are black with a distinctly pink face, ears, and hands making them easy to spot.

Something incredible happened when Instructor Tayla McCurdy and myself positioned ourselves close to a mother baboon with her baby. In an instant, she turned herself open to us allowing us to see her baby suckling as it was making short high-pitched noises as if trying to say mom who are those funny-looking baboons? This was for Tayla and me our best ever baboon encounter where we both felt a genuine connection to these intelligent animals. From what we could see the underside of the EcoTraining kitchen was the designated playground for the youngsters as they had plenty of room to chase each other around and still be in a guardian’s sight.

Photographs © Christoff Els

Many people are not fond of baboons as they most likely had a bad experience with them due to them being fed or not given enough space. The opposite is true in Makuleke as these baboons have never taken any food from the kitchen or attempted to misbehave. By the example set in the camp by its residents, it is clear that a true human-wildlife relationship has been established by simply co-existing and understanding each other’s behavior.

A moment that I will not forget was when I rolled an old palm tree fruit towards a young baboon after which he casually picked it up and rolled it under his feet in a very childlike manner. It was here that I realized that I was now part of the troop. Needless to say – soon my SD card was full and the batteries flat. Leaving me to enjoy this sighting for what it is. As the sun slowly set the troop meandered around me and started to climb on the thatched roof of my tent as the youngsters enjoyed one last wrestling match before going to roost. This immersive experience inspired me to create a video about these baboons that will hopefully be released soon as it is a testimonial of how incredibly social and intelligent these creatures are.

Without moments like these in the bush, it would all be pointless.

Baboons of Makuleke | Between the Sticks

Christoff Els give us a sneak peek at the Baboons here at camp in Makuleke. Observing and filming these playful creatures was a fun and humbling experience all at the same time.

The beautiful Makuleke concession is situated in the Greater Kruger National Park and all the incredible wildlife that call this beautiful place home. Situated in one of the most remote wilderness areas of the Kruger National Park, the beauty of this place will blow your mind!

About the Author: 

Christoff Els is EcoTraining’s Visual Content Creator and spends most of his time at our different campsites capturing the beautiful moments one can only find out in the bush.