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Baboon Woman: The Story of a Gentle Powerhouse

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I heard gunfire as my friend and I walked past a farm on a dirt road about 300 yards from her home. It was a sunny Tuesday morning on March 26th of this year. We had ventured out for an early morning walk with her three dogs. The last thing I expected was to hear gunshots and to witness an assault on wildlife. Or worse, was this angry farmer looking to send a message to my new friend Karin Saks, aka "Baboon Woman"?
It started as a beautiful morning in the Western Cape of South Africa, in a small town along the Garden Route called "The Crags." For those who aren't familiar with South Africa, The Crags is a stunningly beautiful town, and a popular tourist destination. The region is surrounded by the Tsitsikamma National Park and is home to about a dozen or so small farms, a backpacker's camp called "Rocky Road," many charming B&B's, holiday houses and the Darwin Primate Group (DPG). The Darwin Primate Group is focused on rehabilitation of orphaned and injured baboons and vervet monkeys. DPG was founded by a courageous woman named Karin Saks who has been fostering these primates since 1997. Born in South Africa, Karin is a woman who has dedicated her life to the conservation of primates and has successfully rehabilitated and released 35 monkeys and is currently caring for six orphaned baby baboons.
Karin was featured in the 2009 documentary, Baboon Woman and was the subject of the book, Life with Darwin, written by Fransje Van Riel. The baby primates Karin rehabilitates became orphans due to conflicts with humans; these conflicts are most often a result of a farmer suffering crop damage. As with other animals that are labeled as "pests" or "nuisance wildlife," baboons are often shot, snared or poisoned by farmers. Because snares, poisons and steel leg hold traps do not discriminate, other wildlife and pets are often killed in the process.
My fifth trip to South Africa included delivering a donation check to the Darwin Primate Group from the US-based nonprofit, Nikela. Nikela is an emerging wildlife organization that supports a select number of wildlife conservation projects in South Africa. Knowing that access to US donors is a major hurdle for many conservation projects in South Africa, I have watched with interest and followed their progress and the projects they have supported over the last few years.
Karin Saks' Darwin Primate Group is one of the first projects that Nikela qualified and took on as a supported project. Earlier this year, I contacted Nikela, told them of my upcoming trip and asked if there was anything I could do to help while in South Africa. I was told there was a small donation check for Karin that needed delivery. I agreed to carry and present the check to Karin, plus have some photos taken of the event.
Thrilled to be carrying out such a fun request, I decided to make things interesting by seeing if I could double the amount of the original donation from $1500 to $3000. In about a month's time, using the ubiquitous tools of social networking, combined with personal appeals to friends and family, Nikela and I achieved our goal of doubling the donation check I would be delivering to Karin.
I also decided to volunteer at DPG to learn more about the incredible work that Karin does. In getting to know Karin, I discovered a very centered and gentle powerhouse. Baboons are the most persecuted species in South Africa and Karin is not popular with her neighbors because she cares for these injured and orphaned animals considered to be pests. The laws are conflicting regarding their protection and CapeNature will tell people it is perfectly acceptable to shoot baboons, while the local police will say it is not. I found in Karin a woman who crossed the species barrier in her knowledge of primates and in her ability to communicate with them. Karen must first be accepted as a member of a wild baboon troop before she can introduce a youngster to the group. Karen has been spent years observing and understanding the body language and behavior of baboons. As a result of her work she has become an expert in how to solve conflicts non-lethally and coexist. Here you will see footage of how Karin would slowly introduce a baby baboon back into a wild troop.

In a former role, I served as the Director of Advocacy and Wildlife Solutions for WildCare in San Rafael, CA. For three years my work was focused on solving human-wildlife conflicts, and educating the public about how to resolve those problems non-lethally and for the long term. Witnessing Karin's work, I observed how similar the challenges are for wildlife around the world. Karin cares for baby primates because their parents are often killed by farmers whose properties often border on wildlife areas.

Along the Garden Route is the Tsitsikamma National Park. Animals are always in search of food, whether the source is natural or the result of human agriculture. Food sources for wildlife can be either livestock or crops. If food sources are left unprotected, conflicts will ensue. When animals opportunistically take advantage of the easy meals provided by agriculture, they are often shot, poisoned or snared in an attempt to control the damage. However, these methods are retaliatory and work only for the short term. As soon as an animal is removed from a territory, whether by death or relocation, a space is opened up for another animal to fill, as long as the original source or attraction is still readily available. If a mother is killed, orphan babies are left behind to starve or be preyed upon by other animals.

The common denominator of these wildlife conflicts globally is that humans are providing easy access to a food source when we don't take adequate measures to protect our crops or livestock. What varies is the species of wildlife that is killed. In South Africa it is considered perfectly acceptable for a farmer to shoot baboons, vervet monkeys, jackal, and other species. Here in the US, persecuted species include wolves, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, and thousands of songbirds killed by agriculture every year. Most of the killing in the US is either endorsed, or perpetrated, by our own government, for the benefit of private landowners. This explosive three-part story in the Sacramento Bee is the result of an investigation by journalist Tom Knudson of USDA Wildlife Services. In South Africa, many farmers simply take matters into their own hands. In all these scenarios, the victims are the animals who know no borders and move easily between wild areas and cultivated areas.

Circling back to gunshots I heard earlier. My month-long visit to the Garden Route was drawing to a close, and as we walked along the dirt road that leads to Karin's home and the primate rehab center she founded, I noticed a man about a hundred yards away waving something that could have been a stick or a golf club. From a distance it was hard to tell. Seconds later, both Karin and I noticed a wild baboon easily hopping over the small, makeshift fence that surrounds this farmer's property. The debilitated fence was about 2 feet high and we both immediately became concerned for the safety of this animal.

Immediately after the shots were fired, we heard hysterical screams and cries from the baboons and watched as several of them fled over the fence in terror. The only crime that these animals committed was foraging for food. The food source that attracted the baboons was made easily available to them by humans and placed out in the open. This farmer had planted a crop of tomatoes and avocados and took no measures to protect his crops from wildlife, despite the fact that his farm is surrounded by wilderness. Rather than investing in adequate fencing, this farmer, like most, deals with the problem by shooting the offending animals.

Being in such close proximity to gunfire was unsettling. I was in a popular tourist area with a backpacker's facility just down the road, and here we were out for a morning stroll, on a country road, with a couple of dogs. Because of her work caring for baboons, it is rumored that the local farmers "have meetings about Karin." I couldn't help but wonder if the gunshots fired that morning as we passed were meant to send a message or not. Regardless of the intent, Karin's courage and commitment is unwavering as she works day to day caring for the orphans and victims of agriculture and human encroachment. She has just been notified that the 17 hectare property that she has been leasing for the last seven years is now up for sale. An international effort is now underway to assist DPG to either purchase this land or another suitable location that has just become available in the area.

If you want to help Karin continue her work, you can donate via any one of the following nonprofit organizations:

Darwin Primate Group

Nikela

Primates Africa