Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California, Arizona,
Texas, and Africa..... Ain't done growing up
'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan







These Varmints were Neighbors, Enemies, and Entertainment.



This will be a hard one to write.  Baboons are naughty animals by human standards, and many a tourist has been shocked at the manners of these hairy beasts.  I personally think the chimpanzee is highly over-rated as to intelligence.

Liberal animal huggers most often give the chimp credit for being the smartest ape because he, like his alleged fool evolutionary heir, man, can smoke cigars and ride bicycles. A baboon would flunk if cigars are the deciding factor. Nevertheless, I vote for baboons in the intelligence ratings.  I think you may agree after you read this story.

Baboons are known as the most vicious of the apes.  This, as with the leopard and the cape buffalo, is not because of some innate lust to wreck mayhem on all sides.  Rather; it is because the baboon defends itself so well, and the baboon has the most powerful jaws of all apes, with perhaps the exception of the gorilla.

Baboon troops
are highly organized.

Chimps will abandon their young and flee from enemies, and this I say is dumb, NOT intelligent. It is also why chimps are going extinct. Of course, the average Western animal hugger has abandoned his young in order to pursue his scholarly interests, so the chimp is his hero.  

The average baboon troop is structured very tightly at three levels.  

Level One:  
Two to three huge bucks who lead the troop without any sign of competition.  

Level Two:  
Younger bucks who submit to the three troop leaders and help protect the ladies and the young.  

Level Three:  
Females and babies.

When danger is sensed, such as an approaching leopard, the three big bucks will raise the alarm. At once, the whole troop submits 100%, and the females grab the babies and young and run to the center of the troop. The younger bucks gather around the females and their young and display attack gestures outward. The two or three big buck leaders move around the perimeter of the troop, back and forth, watching for the leopard. The troop will not panic or run away.  

Now, a smart leopard, though he may consider baboon a delicacy, will not proceed to attack. But, if the leopard foolishly advances, the three big bucks, with several younger bucks following, will charge the leopard, and they will tear the leopard to shreds..... literally. Baboons are much smaller than leopards, but the effect of baboon rage is stupefying to the leopard. Game hunters have reported finding the scene afterward, and all that was left was mouthful sized pieces of leopard in all directions. The baboons tore the leopard to bits using their powerful mouths. Virtually NO other member of the ape family conducts business in this manner.

Baboons will attack humans in the same manner.
 If a person strolls past baboons, they will ignore him. If a person chases baboons away from his garden, they will flee. But, if you wound a baboon while trying to shoot them, don't run forward to see what you got. The troop will always flee from gunfire. But, the big buck leaders will almost always come back to carry off their wounded or dead. If you are standing over the dead baboon you shot when those big bucks return, you could very well be treated as a leopard.  Many a baboon hunter has used this factor and concealed himself nearby so that he could get another shot at the leaders returning for their dead.  If a troop is particularly troublesome to farmers, this is highly merciful to the farmers.  If the troop leaders are all killed, the troop will break up in confusion, and their attacks on gardens will then be easy to control.


How smart are baboons?  

When we lived in the Arussi forests of Ethiopia on Lake Langano, we had to be very self-sufficient in food production. We, and our Arussi workers, had gardens for this purpose. About every two months a new troop of baboons would enter our area. They would hang out in the short trees around the mission compound, and with what appeared to be pure boredom they would munch wild berries in the trees. But, we knew that at some point they would attack. They were casing us out, and they learned when we went here and there, and when our Arussi workers were all having a cup of tea, etc.

One day we would hear a yell from a worker, and we knew that the baboons had descended onto the mission station.They tore along pulling up every kind of plant around.  How they loved marigold flowers! The garden vegetables were new to them, so they sampled everything. If we did not catch them in time, they would pull up virtually every plant in the garden. At this point, I would get my hunting rifle, and I would fire into the air, or simply run them off the compound. Then I would follow them at a trot. They would usually head for the tall trees. We had forests of wild fig trees which were not like any fig tree you ever saw. One of these wild fig trees, standing alone, could individually reach 90 feet high and 150 across. A grove of wild figs was quite different though. They would crowd each other, and this would cause them to bolt and grow as high as 200 feet high, forming a lacy canopy against the sky. For some reason very little would grow under these fig trees, only one particular kind of dense shrub about twelve feet in diameter. The effect was that of a cathedral with a soft mat floor and here and there a large bush.

The baboons felt very safe in the tops of these fig tree groves. As I chased them one day to the grove near us, I came upon them as they were jumping into the lowest branches of the trees along the edge of the grove where the trees were shorter. The three big bucks were standing at the bottom of the tree eyeing me ominously. Also, they were supervising the troop as it entered the trees. As youngsters came along, two big bucks would grab a little one, one at each arm, and the big bucks would fling the little baboon high in the air. With perfect aim they would propel the youngster baboon into the first crotch of the fig tree, and then he could scramble on up. The three big bucks went up last. I was so awed at this performance that I forgot to shoot at the baboons, which would have been an easy shot. Many hunters will confess to missing a huge deer because of some spectacular display of animal instinct or beauty.

The troop climbed high in the canopy of the fig tree grove, which was perhaps half a mile across. I followed on the ground of this natural cathedral built by God, and it was rather dark and mysterious. To my surprise, the baboons did not try to flee through the tree tops and get away from me. If I had been a better shot, I could have picked them off one by one from the ground. They were hunkered on the limbs watching me intently. 

I walked on in the dim light thinking I would take a few shots to frighten them. Baboons are very frightened of gun shots and the smell of gun powder. Gray monkeys never fear guns, and will return the day after you shoot at them.  A baboon troop will stay away for at least nine months after being shot at. I walked on, weaving in and out of the bushes, and I was amazed at the baboons. They would hang over the high branches and peek at me. It almost seemed like they were expecting something else to happen. And so they were. If I had been able to see them better I would have realized they were actually looking just a little ways to the right of me. By the grace of God, I was delivered. Just as I came up to a large bush, and I was thinking of taking a pot shot at the baboons, I heard a cough on the other side of the bush.

Now, this is the point at which grown men wet their pants. I managed to avoid this, but I was suddenly filled with pure terror. Have you ever experienced this? It has a power to it which is beyond words, and you can almost taste the fear in your mouth. You find yourself wanting to be somewhere else at once. I also knew that I would give off the odor of fear in the state I was in, so I told myself to be cool at all costs. You see, there is only one cough like the one I heard, and it is made by a leopard when it is trying to make up its mind whether it should attack or flee. Give me a grizzly bear, a cougar, or a black mamba snake after me, but you can keep your leopards. I don't need that much trouble to satisfy my need for male machismo.

I was not in nearly as much doubt as to my course of action as the leopard was. I fled. Of course, with leopards it is very essential not to lock eyes with the leopard and to walk off casually if possible. I was pretty casual as I tore through the bushes. The baboons overhead raised a terrible racket and howl. I could almost make out the words "off sides."  I had the real sense that the baboons not only had set me up and lead me to the leopard, but they were also genuinely disappointed that the melodrama was cut short.

I have never seen a leopard in the wild while on foot.  I am not at all disappointed either.  I have seen their pug marks and scratching marks on trees, and that is all the amusement I need to feel fulfilled. A few months later, another troop of baboons entered our area, and this time I decided I would not wait to see what their intentions were.  In the words of that world class warmonger, Henry Kissinger, I decided to, "raise the level of hostilities."  Taking my rifle, I chased this troop toward the river.  I noticed again that they were not trying very hard to get clear of me.  I had forgotten the earlier troop's tactics.  We don't learn much from history, right?  

As the troop got to the river, they entered the trees and crossed the river in the tree tops. They stopped on the other side of the river within shooting range and hung out in the tree tops. They had lead me to the edge of a flood plane of the river which was extremely thick, like jungle. At this point, they had stopped, and they actually began to pick berries and eat them, like they were bored with me. It occurred to me that if I dropped onto the flood plane about ten feet below, I could creep through the river brush and possibly surprise them and kill a leading buck. This would insure us that this particular troop would not be back perhaps for years.

Just as I was about to drop into the forest below, I recalled the baboon stunt in the fig tree grove. This time there was no warning cough, but I had the very real feeling that I was being watched by a leopard. I looked at the baboons, and again they were not looking right at me-- they were looking at a point right below me! If I had dropped into the trees below, I would have trapped the leopard on the flood plane, with the river to his back and me to his front.

Once again, I casually turned and charged head first through the bushes for home. I apologize for my sorry hunting stories in these yarns. I have always found my self-preservation instincts always seem to win over my urge to be a famous Amos of the jungle. YOU go wrestle with the crocodile, and if you win, make a purse of it, and I will buy it from you to give to my wife.


Baboons have horrid social manners.

There are a good number of baboons which have learned just how to gross out tourists. In the game parks of Kenya, you may drive through the parks in your car, and the animals are roaming free and living a fairly normal existence. This reverses the zoo factor so that the humans are locked up in cars, and the animals can watch humans. This is a favorite past time of baboons. They will climb up on the hood (bonnet in the UK) of a car, and they will carefully examine the occupants through the windshield. They may tear off the windshield wipers and see how they taste. Before they leave, the males will pee on the windshield glass right in the face of the folks inside. It is as if they know just how to gross out some sweet little lady from Omaha or Birmingham.


One day, my high school class from Rift Valley Academy in Kenya was on its "senior safari." This was the last fling of the senior class. For many of us it was the last fling of life as a missionary's kid in Africa before returning to the USA or UK  for college days. We were "on safari" in the Serengeti Game Park, and we were traveling along in a stake bed truck looking at the animals. I was pre-occupied when I noticed all the girls were looking out the left side of the truck, while all the guys were looking out the right side. I looked to see what the girls were avoiding and the guys were enjoying so much. There, in a large acacia tree, was a big troop of baboons.

It seems that baboons have business meetings just like some churches, or like the US Congress, and it seems they behave in the same manner as the US Congress in conducting business. These baboons were barking and screaming at each other in a very ugly way. There was no one baboon who was the target-- just all yelling and barking at each other. And, to punctuate their barks and scoldings at each other, all of the adult baboons were pooping in their hand and throwing it at each other. Brown stuff was flying in all directions, and the baboons were getting to look pretty messy. They followed Robert's Rules of Order-- all business was moved, seconded, and carried. I presume the meeting adjourned when the ammunition could no longer be produced. Now, haven't you been in a church business meeting that was similar to that? Some of you CEOs can also relate to this I dare say.

The enemy of baboons is the leopard, as we said earlier.  Leopards look on baboon like Americans look on fried chicken. At night, if a leopard is in the area, you will know it by hearing the baboons barking in the trees. Don't go out to the out house. Use the chamber pot.

In one area of Ethiopia, the local people had managed to kill all of the leopards. Leopards also kill sheep and goats, and will even kill a child for no good reason. The local people thought they had done themselves a big favor by killing the leopards. But, the baboons lost their enemy, and they began to proliferate seriously. They were in an agricultural area which had high mountains to one side and a lake to the other. Baboons don't like to cross mountains, so they could not migrate and were a severe hazard to the farmers.

The local tribal leaders went to the missionary, Bud Isaacs, and asked him if he could help them. By this point, the baboons were far too many to try to shoot them, so Bud resorted to poisoning them. He put minute amounts of a highly toxic poison into potatoes used as bait, and he was able to kill 10,000 baboons. This only brought the situation to be manageable.

Baboons can also be very hard on people's sense of decency. In the 1950s, a member of the Kenya Legislature, a white settler of high Anglican morality, asked for a law to be passed to put a high bounty on baboons and eradicate them. It seems that baboon males, when bored by plentiful food supplies and the good life, would chase down female gazelles, and they would mount the gazelles as a form of sport. Well, the good English settler thought this was a clear form of perversion, and he asked the Kenya legislature to wipe out all baboons in East Africa.

Now, without being too impertinent, I suggest that these baboons are not a lot unlike some Presidents we have had in the USA. One in particular, had to address the legislative lions of decency and try to explain his novel conduct with various gazelles who worked for him in the Oval Office. Interesting eh? It makes it hard for a Bible believer to fight off the evolutionist claims regarding man's origins.

One day at Langano in Ethiopia, our workers brought us a baby baboon.  He was as cute as anything you ever saw.  He lost his fear of us humans very quickly, and we made him a big cage to live in. Problem: The rascal could get out of any cage we put him in. Once out, did he run away? Yes, for about ten minutes. He roamed the tree tops until it occurred to him that his food came from us. At that point, he would descend toward us, fussing and screaming blue murder. At first, we wondered if he would bite us as we grabbed him, but he never did. He submitted to us as we grabbed him while he screamed like we were pulling his arms off. Back into the cage he went. He would eat almost anything we gave him, and we gave him a bath from time to time in the lake. He was a very nice pet-- until one day a single lady guest missionary visited our mission station.

Our little friend had never displayed any of the known perverse baboon social manners with us or our Arussi workers or their children. Surprise, surprise! When the young baboon, now entering adolescence, spied the single lady missionary, he made a bee line for her, grabbed her leg in a full embrace, and what followed was far and away beyond embarrassing folks. We had always marveled at the fact that our baboon was such a model citizen, yet we noted that other missionaries never had baboons for pets. We had learned why-- the hard way. The next day we had to take our little friend far away and return him to his baboon culture, where hopefully, his social habits were more appreciated.

So, you can see why baboons are held in very high esteem for their intelligence, but most folks who have lived in their territory also have reservations about hugging baboons to closely. Chimps, after all, do have much better social graces than baboons.