A primate murder mystery puts one of South Africa’s best-known wine estates on the spot.
Klein Constantia on the slopes of the Constantiaberg in Cape Town, is one of South Africa’s most famously “green” wine estates. A WWF Conservation Champion, it touts its environmentalism widely. A 2015 book titled The Wine Kingdom – Celebrating Conservation in the Cape Winelands claims that it has “extensive soil erosion plans” and aims to build a cellar “that will be powered by solar energy”. It mentions that Klein Constantia “has also experienced serious damage to their crops caused by baboons, but today most of this problem is taken care of by using baboon monitors during harvest”.
|Vinetards on the upper foothills of the Constantiaberg range|
Baboons can be prodigious crop raiders, and three troops inhabit the slopes above the wine estates in the Constantia area. The fruit-laden vineyards are a huge temptation because they back on to the baboons’ natural territories in Table Mountain National Park.
While it may have been true in 2015 that Klein Constantia dealt with “most” of its baboon problem by using monitors – people using nonlethal paintball guns and the like to keep the primates out of crops and houses – recent goings-on suggest that the estate is no longer as wildlifefriendly nor as open and honest as it might like us to believe; in July 2018 it was revealed that Klein Constantia had been killing baboons, and in November a source came to me with unusual evidence suggesting that the estate and/or its contractors may also have been lying and breaking the law with respect to those killings.
The evidence was two dead and somewhat-rotten baboons, which the source said they had dug up the previous night from a shallow grave next to a pond inside the Klein Constantia estate. (One way to get journalists’ attention is to bring them actual bodies. Beats smoking guns every time.)
The source – who I’ll call Baboon Corpse Retriever, or BCR – came to me via Jenni Trethowan, a pro-baboon activist. BCR said the grave contained “many” other dead baboons, which were too heavy to carry out.
In October 2017, just over a year before BCR and their smelly evidence appeared, Klein Constantia and a neighbouring estate, Buitenverwachting, were quietly granted permits allowing them to hunt two baboons per day for a whole year – that is over 700 baboons in a year – by CapeNature, the provincial conservation agency. The permits were granted because the estates claimed they were suffering serious losses even though they had tried non-lethal methods of keeping baboons away.
According to provincial hunting register records from CapeNature, a professional hunter employed by the estates had shot two baboons, age and sex unstated, in January 2018. The stomach contents of both were recorded as “grapes”. (Grapes are on the vines in January.) In June 2018, a further five baboons were recorded as being shot, four female and one male, with stomach contents of the first being listed as “raisons [sic], cover crop” and the remaining four as “seeds cover crop” – which also makes sense because that’s the time of year that there aren’t mature grapes on the vines, and the baboons sometimes eat the winter cover crop (usually barley) that farmers plant between vines. The records don’t specify the estate on which each baboon was shot.
The killings were revealed shortly afterwards, in July 2018, by Karen Watkins of the Constantiaberg Bulletin. Baboon activists protested, decrying the secrecy around them. They demanded to know why Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting didn’t keep the primates out of their vineyards non-lethally, and why CapeNature had granted the hunting permits; baboons are widely known as a protected species on the Cape Peninsula.
|Healthy Chacma Baboons of the Western Cape|
The controversy got so hot that even Carte Blanche rocked up. Their TV piece melodramatically portrayed the baboons as fearsome creatures that everyone in their right minds should be terrified of, and the programme found no evidence of law-breaking – or evidence of anything much, really – leaving the impression that whatever the wine farms had done had probably been legal and rational.
The publicity nonetheless shamed Buitenverwachting into returning its baboon-shooting permit to Cape- Nature. (Unconfirmed rumours are that some restaurants stopped stocking their wine.)
Klein Constantia mostly kept its head down during the hoo-ha, issuing a bland press release and refusing many media interviews. Unlike Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia made no grand gesture of returning its baboon-shooting permit; the Constantiaberg Bulletin reported that “farm manager Craig Harris said they still had their permit but had no intention of using it.” The estate clearly decided to commit to as little as possible and wait for the media interest to pass.
That strategy might have worked for Klein Constantia except that BCR and other informants have since been leaking rumours and hard information to me, prompting more questions about killings of baboons in and around the Constantia-area wine estates.
The answers and evasions I’ve received give the unpleasant impression that law-breaking and baboon killings are being covered up, and these cover-ups are being perpetrated not just by wine estates, but by baboon management and conservation agencies, too. It’s also not clear what the rationale of the estates’ “lethal management” is; the little they’ve said doesn’t make sense in the light of the evidence.
Let’s start with one justification for the wine estates’ application for permits to shoot baboons: their claim that they had tried their best to keep baboons off their property by nonlethal means. It appears they haven’t tried their best, and I can say this with reasonable confidence because Groot Constantia estate is in the same area, also abuts baboon territory, and does not report a baboon problem. Why? Because Groot Constantia has a much better electrified fence. Baboon activists also say that both Buitenverwachting and Klein Constantia’s fences are poorly maintained, so perhaps if the two estates had spent more on fences, they would have no reason to shoot baboons. It seems that bullets, being much cheaper, were seen as a good alternative solution.
It seems to me that any vineyard manager should have an end goal and a strategy for reaching it when deciding to kill baboons, otherwise it’s just mindless carnage and cruelty.
I’m speculating here, but it seems that if you want the baboons to disappear, then your strategy is to kill them all – humanely, of course. If you don’t want to kill them all, but do want to keep them out of your vineyards, then perhaps you follow the advice of a hunter’s old wives’ tale that says “shoot a few of the troop in the growing season, and the remaining baboons will be afraid to come near your crop until you harvest it”. If you just want to remove individual baboons that are particularly proficient raiders, then you target those individuals.
|Buitenverwachting's CEO Lars Maack|
Buitenverwachting’s CEO, Lars Maack, emailed me to say that they had done the latter. “In June 2018 we engaged a professional hunter to remove three dangerous baboons, all of which were physically compromised”, he wrote. “The baboons had a history of raiding homes and damaging or killing our animals. Furthermore my staff are also very nervous about the safety of their children, as baboons raid our farm creche and kindergarten.” He added that they had requested CapeNature to cancel their permit, “as our intentions were misunderstood”.
This appears reasonable (aside from the bit about misunderstood intentions; I mean, their intention was to kill baboons, and that’s what upset some people!) None of us would like kids’ safety to be put at risk by marauding baboons. If these particular baboons were disabled and could not fend for themselves in the wild, maybe shooting them was justified (if you discard the option of improving fences, of course).
The thing is, neither of the corpses dug up by BCR show signs of physical disability. So I asked Maack for details of the three troublesome animals’ disabilities. They were “partially paralysed”, he wrote; this might not be visible in the corpses, of course.
Let’s accept Maack’s opinion that a baboon can be partially paralysed and still very dangerous. I can imagine a partially paralysed big male being dangerous, but can a very small baboon be legitimately dangerous? Because another notable thing is that one of BCR’s dead baboons is a small juvenile, estimated at between 18 months and two years old by Jenni Trethowan and her experienced colleagues. It could not have presented any danger, she says. “They would actively get away from people.” (The second corpse appears to be a young adult female.)
Of course, Maack’s emails only account for three of the seven baboons recorded in the hunting register; the other four should have been shot on the orders of Klein Constantia. So maybe Buitenverwachting’s three paralysed-but-dangerous baboons are still in their grave, and the two corpses brought by BCR were both shot on Klein Constantia? Maybe Klein Constantia’s strategy included killing healthy and very young baboons – and probably in the season when there were no grapes to steal, as BCR’s corpses were at the top of the grave and thus probably shot in June. If so, why?
I emailed Hans Aström, Klein Constantia’s managing director, to ask what his estate’s lethal management strategy is and why at least one very young baboon was killed, apparently in the season when no grapes were at risk, among other questions. He refused to give a meaningful reply, referring me to an old, irrelevant press release and then ducking and diving for weeks on end. “We are not at all refusing to comment,” he wrote, “however, as it is right now, we feel we have nothing to comment on.” (Klein Constantia’s PR people should know that this sort of response makes the estate look guilty as sin, but whatever.)
|Two baboon corpses during pathologist investigation|
Another strange thing about BCR’s dead baboons is that they appear not to have had their stomach contents checked, a condition under which the CapeNature permit was granted. An experienced forensic pathologist who normally works on humans examined the baboons in my and Jenni Trethowan’s presence, and the larger baboon did not have its abdomen or stomach cut open. The young juvenile had a small perforation in the stomach and gut, but this appears to be the result of being (painfully, and unhumanely) shot in the abdomen, not of having its stomach contents checked.
Checking the stomach contents of the dead baboons was a condition under which the CapeNature permit to shoot them was granted, so at the very least it appears that the professional hunter and/or the wine estates lied on the documents they submitted to the agency.
Did the estates shoot more baboons than disclosed? Perhaps they checked stomach contents of seven, but then shot more which they buried without checking: BCR repeatedly told me that there were more than five corpses left in the grave after they had retrieved “their” two.
BCR could be lying, but a census done at the end of June 2018 by Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS), the company paid by the City of Cape Town to monitor baboons, showed 40 baboons missing from the troops that live near the Constantia winelands. Sources say some of those were probably killed by suburban homeowners in Constantia – but not all. (HWS can’t speak to the media).
The day that BCR brought the baboons out, Trethowan contacted Deon Hignett of CapeNature to say that she had indications that more than seven baboons had been shot, and that perhaps they were in the grave. (Hignett had granted the permit.) He promised to do an inspection that day and later emailed Trethowan to say that CapeNature had seen a freshly disturbed gravesite on Klein Constantia at the place indicated.
Trethowan asked to see CapeNature’s photos of the gravesite and their written report, to be sure that there weren’t more than five corpses left in it. CapeNature refused, and refused again when Trethowan’s lawyers filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act request. There is no written report, they said, and Klein Constantia had objected to the photos being circulated; they didn’t want Trethowan sensationalising them.
Trethowan has offered CapeNature access to BCR’s baboon corpses, so that CapeNature can check their age, health, and confirm that the stomachs were not opened by the hunter. The agency has shown no interest.
Did CapeNature really visit the site? Why is CapeNature taking orders from Klein Constantia about CapeNature’s own photographs? Why is the agency so uninterested in following up?
Just before this story went to press a tagged baboon was found dead on Buitenverwachting’s land. CapeNature has labelled its cause of death “undetermined”.
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