One of my favourite animals to watch in The Gambia has to be the baboons and the best place to see them is in Makasutu Forest, about an hour and a half’s drive inland from the coastal resorts. Here I’d like to share some of my photographs and a few baboon facts to give you a better insight into these fascinating monkeys.
Replanting Makasutu Forest and the return of the baboons
When the founders of Mandina Lodges, first moved to Makasutu they set about re-planting the decimated forest. Some 20 years later the reforestation has been such a success that baboons have returned. There are five species of baboons of which those in The Gambia are the smallest, Guinea baboons (Papio papio) and up until their return to Makasutu, they were only common up-country. Deforestation is a big problem in The Gambia and while Guinea baboons are not considered endangered they are listed by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as near threatened.
A few baboon facts
Baboons are one of the largest of monkeys and like other ‘Old World’ monkeys, they do not have prehensile tails and live mainly on the ground (unlike New World monkeys whose gripping tails allow them to be more agile in the trees). Baboons still climb trees to sleep and sometimes to eat or look out for danger, however, they spend most of their time on the forest floor.
Baboons live in troops which can vary greatly in size (40 to 200) and within this there is a complex hierarchy for both the males and females. Within the troop there will be sub-groups where one male has a harem of females. In general, a female’s rank is determined by her mother’s rank whereas a male’s rank is determined by his size, power and confidence. High-ranking males have a greater chance of mating. High-ranking females can displace lower-ranking females from food and water sources as well as from being groomed. Grooming between troop members removes insects as well as dead skin and also serves as an important bonding activity.
Among other things, a female’s ranking affects the rate at which their young grow and reach maturity.
Females always stay within the same troop, whereas males may change troops. Grooming between troop members removes insects as well as dead skin and also serves as an important bonding activity.
Humans and baboons
Sadly, many monkeys, including baboons, are easily habituated to humans, losing their natural fear of them. The baboons in Makasutu Forest occasionally run through Mandina causing chaos as they go. The floating lodges, like the one I was staying in, were originally thatched but after the baboons returned to the forest this became less practical as there’s nothing they enjoy more than tearing apart a thatched roof other than maybe nicking your shampoo (which they will then throw away as they quickly realise they can’t eat it). Worse still, once a monkey learns it can take food from a human it sees itself as dominant to them and will always associate humans with food.
When we arrived at Mandina Lodges we were given a few words of warning! “Don’t leave your toiletries out in your open-air bathroom as the baboons might steal them.”
It was worrying how close we were able to walk to the baboons at Makasutu before they moved away. While great for my photography, in the long-term this can only increase the conflict between baboons and humans. I’m pleased to say that the Makasutu baboons didn’t react to our presence in a way that inferred that they associate humans with food. In fact, they pretty much ignored us!
The future of the Makasutu Baboons
The troop of baboons at Makasutu, now numbers around 200, the top end of the range of group numbers found in this species. It will be interesting to see if the troop changes in size over the coming years and whether it remains as a single troop. If the threat from predators is low in the forest then they are more likely to split into two separate groups at some point. Their natural predators include leopards, lions and hyenas. While there are no lions in The Gambia, from what I’ve read, hyenas and occasionally leopards are seen here.
For now, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens!
They certainly were a joy to observe and photograph and whether you are staying at the Mandina Lodges as we were, or visiting for the day, a close encounter with the baboons is virtually guaranteed.
Find out more about a holiday at Mandina Lodges in Makasutu Forest.
Join my 'Behind the Scenes' newsletter
Delivered monthly to your inbox with all my behind the scenes news, latest posts and giveaways exclusive to my subscribers.