Technology has come on in leaps and bounds in the last decade and despite the obvious disadvantage of people becoming glued to their screens, while their eyes merge together, their thumbs becoming freakishly small and nimble and their ears no longer able to receive sound further than a few feet away, there have been advantages. For conservationists, one of the most useful things to have improved over the last few years has been the camera trap; these wonderful little boxes allow us to take a look, unobtrusively, into an animal’s world.
The Hooded Vulture Project, by means of ascending ropes, tries to place camera traps overlooking nests before the breeding season begins but, unfortunately, some trees are too difficult to climb or do not have suitable branches to attach a camera. When this occurs, we turn to the old-school technique of behavioural observations, which means having to sit in the glorious African sunshine, in beautiful locations and watch the nest with binoculars from dawn until dusk, such a chore.
We had two distant sites to visit which meant that in order for us to put in a full day’s observations, we had to get up at 4:30am, slightly painful but who could complain? We were being granted access to nests situated in stunning (and expensive) private reserves. Our visit to the first nest was quite uneventful, lots of incubating, the occasional shift in position, the odd poo and a single change-over between the parents. Most people would consider watching a bird sitting on a nest all day incredibly boring, but the time whizzed by. If you’re interested in an animal and nothing happens it doesn’t matter, because you’re just happy to be there. Our second day of observations at the other nest site was far more eventful but, not in a good way.
We bounced up just as the sky began to lighten and took our chairs, cameras, data sheets, field bags and lunch into the shade of a tree. It was nice to have infinite leg room for my giraffe legs, as the previous day’s observations had been undertaken from the truck. Just as we were setting down our chairs the vulture pair began to mate: today was going to be interesting, we hadn’t previously witnessed any mating behaviour. A few minutes after finishing the deed the male hopped further up the tree and attempted, in the clumsiest fashion imaginable, to break off small leafy twigs with his beak with which to line the nest. Amused, we watched his progress for a good 15 minutes. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed branches on the lowest part of the tree begin to move. The female was sitting on the nest and the male was still attempting to gather foliage near the top. To my horror two large adult male baboons appeared.
I am absolutely terrified of these primates; I hate the way they scream, they’re incredibly strong, unpredictable and can literally rip your face off if they want to. I would rather have a tiger charge at me than a baboon, at least I’d know what it would do. For about 10 minutes they skulked around the tree and at one point even attempted to grab one of the birds. Finding little to forage on, the largest male descended the tree and landed on the roof of the building below. After a few seconds scanning the area the animal locked onto us under the tree, he jumped off the roof and quickly strode straight towards us. The distance closed all too quickly and I suggested we stand up to appear bigger hoping the baboon might think twice, but his pace didn’t slow a nanosecond. I noticed a small log pile beside me and grabbed a large stick, he stopped in his tracks a few metres from us. My understanding of carnivore behaviour is good but when it comes to primates I’m at a loss. I suddenly had a moment of blind panic, if I throw the stick at the animal will he run away or will he get angry and attack us? Despite having more projectiles at my disposal Lindy was a pace in front of me and I didn’t want it going for her. We seemed to stand still for an age until, the baboon lunged forward and went straight for Lindy’s lunch bag which she managed to hurl away. That was far too close! We retrieved the catapults from the car and immediately began target practice with the nearby trees.
As it turned out, a parcel of land nearby was owned by a baboon rescue and rehabilitation centre. Despite my intense dislike for these demons I wouldn’t want to see one of their freaky, gangly-limbed, bug-eyed young starve to death. However, hand-raising these animals and releasing them willy-nilly is incredibly dangerous; they have little to no fear of humans and have learnt to associate us with food. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when one of the guests staying at the lodge presented me with a rifle with which to shoot the buggers. Don’t worry it was only loaded with BB pellets so they would get a nasty shock and maybe a bit of a bruise (their skin is much tougher than ours) but nothing worse. It was more of a deterrent than anything as they recognised the rifle and knew exactly what it did, and so would run away at the sight of it.
With the departure of the menacing primates, we settled back into our seats and returned our attention to the vultures. It was fascinating. Lindy and I focused on one bird each which, surprisingly, was still difficult to keep track of. We had to make notes, but the moment we glanced down to write the birds would bounce to another branch or switch places, however, if I didn’t, my pages would’ve ended up looking more like they’d been written by a drunken spider than they usually did. Time zoomed by peacefully until, an entire troop of baboons appeared from nowhere and all charged straight into our nest tree, my blood ran cold. Two rogue monkeys had been bad enough but an entire troop! As they used the tree like manic 5-year-olds on a jungle gym, our vulture pair hunkered down in their nest.
As with the baboons earlier in the day, the troop found little to eat in the tree and soon grew tired of their playground. While attempting to keep one eye on my bird and the other on every member of the group simultaneously, without becoming completely cross-eyed, I made sure the rifle was well within grasp. I swore to Lindy that if a single monkey’s digit touched the lawn anywhere near us, then I would most definitely shoot it in the arse. As if they read my mind and wanted to test me, almost in synchrony they dropped onto the lodge roof and then onto the fence which edged the lawn. I rose from the lawn chair with the rifle in my hand, they all stopped what they were doing and watched me. Very slowly they climbed off the fence and onto the lawn, I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and they immediately scattered. I knew we would not be having any more terrifying encounters that day.
Once I wasn’t preoccupied with my gut-wrenching fear, and the vultures decided to be stationary for a change, I could take in the beauty of the place we were camped at. There were so many gorgeous birds flitting around and, to my delight, a brown-headed kingfisher posed closely for a good few minutes.
After a wonderful few hours watching our pair and slowly following the shade around the tree, the lunch-stealing mutated imp reappeared. He clambered around the lodges as if he owned the place, and caught the attention of the groundskeeper before heading back up the tree. Due to the boldness of these animals they’re often seen as pests, which is why the groundskeeper appeared with a catapult and attempted to scare him off. As we had found out earlier in the day this individual didn’t seem to fear anything and, unfortunately, the groundskeeper only succeeded in scaring our vultures off their nest. Almost immediately the baboon climbed into the vacant nest and had a poke around. This was not good news, we had already suffered egg losses to baboons this season and, if this male knew that nest = food we didn’t hold out much hope of success if this pair laid, because vultures aren’t well equipped to defend their nests.