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KC Troop Release Almost Complete!

There was a time when their release seemed impossible, bound with a spiders web of tough red duct tape. Through persistence and determination the obstacles have been removed and the individuals have been given a chance to make an exquisite mountain habitat their home.

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The troop of nineteen individuals consisting of eight adult males, five adult females, four juvenile males and two juvenile females have been released onto a stunning Nature Reserve in Limpopo Province approximately two hours from C.A.R.E. The reserve is 18,000 hectares, not including the steep elevations. It is a stunning mosaic of various micro-habitats; rolling green hills, mountainous grasslands, ancient tree plantations, lush indigenous riverine forests, abandoned avocado & mango orchards & steep gorges.

Since Rita’s revolutionary release in 1994, the C.A.R.E. team through trial and error have increased insight into safeguarding the survival of the released orphans. Furthermore, scientific knowledge of relocation, translocation and release of wildlife has increased globally too. Combining Rita’s wisdom, Stephen’s experience and the collective knowledge of scientific experts who compiled the IUCN Primate Reintroduction Methods Stephen embarked on Pre-Release data collection at the start of the year (2014). After a number of meetings, presentations and site visits with Limpopo Economic Development Environment and Tourism (LEDET), these permitting authorities gave verbal agreement to release 39 baboons onto the reserve; Blue's troop (known as KC troop) and New Troops. C.A.R.E.'s rehabilitation methods involve the formation of small troops of hand-raised, orphaned baboons. The troops are strategically kept small for important reasons. The IUCN/SSC (The World Conservation Union and Species Survival Commissioner) (2007) highlights that the ‘Precautionary Principle’ should guide all reintroduction efforts. The Precautionary Principle is the idea that the protection of wild populations is always the priority and that introduced animals should not endanger resident wild individuals. If too many individuals were released onto an area it is likely that the existing biodiversity would suffer as a result, and/or the troop would break up into sub-groups and the potential risks of the released baboons venturing onto neighbouring land would increase. Additionally, habitat destruction is leading to less habitat availability & smaller habitat sizes. If a small site is located, a suitable sized troop can be picked to suite the habitat, still if a large site is secured like the present Nature Reserve a large number can still be released, but rather as 2 troops in different areas of the reserve. Furthermore, a smaller number of individuals in the troop means greater control and in turn a higher survival rate. KC troop, which has a large number of adult male baboons was picked for this site as it has a number of small existing wild baboon troops & human presence is rare. The males therefore, have abundant chances of safely finding a new & suitable troop when they come to disperse.

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On the 28th September 2014 Stephen picked up the paper permit from the LEDET offices. A priceless piece of paper. After Veterinary clearance, removal of contraceptive implants and the fitting of ear tags, KC troop were transported to the release site in a vehicle convoy. The transport cages were off-loaded & for the first time the baboons got a glimpse of what they'd been preparing for. A baboons 'Garden of Eden' a true primate paradise. C.A.R.E.'s Release Methods allow for the troop members to be released strategically over a period of a few days. Cricket, an ex-pet & the alpha female who arrived at the centre in 2004 as a year old juvenile was the first to be released. Cricket bounded from her cage like a scene from a movie. She laughed, chatted & giggled as she ran up the mountain. Her troop back at the release camp called to her nervously as she proceeded to run further away from them. These calls are exactly what Stephen wants to hear as they indicate a closely bonded troop which is paramount to a successful outcome. These contact-calls awoke Crickets troop-instincts & much to Stephens relief, she proceeded to run back to her troop; 'the safe zone' of the Release Camp. Crickets adrenaline rush is the exact reason that initially only a few individuals at a time are released. With each troop member having unique personalities, different levels of confidence and varying depths of bonds to the troop if more troop members were released with Cricket the troop could move far off together, egging each other on. In those early days, in unfamiliar territory the troop are easily spooked, which in wild animals can proceed to make them bolt. Lots of inexperienced baboons bolting in unfamiliar territory could all too easily proceed to them becoming lost and breaking up. Therefore, slowly and strategically the troop are released. Over the period of a few days Blue, Scruffy and their friends were released to join Cricket 'in the wild'. Some baboons reacted similarly to Cricket, others coolly & calmly left the cages as if nothing was different to the norm. Blue was one of those baboons, who reacted indifferent. Slipping out of his cage he scratched around in the soil. Sniffing his troop members he proceeded to stride calmly up the mountain, the troop followed him. At times he sat and scanned his new home and then quietly meandered back to his unreleased troop members. The juveniles were entertaining to observe, each one laughed happily as they climbed the trees, letting of warning calls for unfamiliar birds & cows. Stephen’s job in those early days is to orientate the baboons, meanwhile maintaining calm & control. He gently manipulates the baboon’s movements, encouraging them to follow him on short walks as he presents different micro-niches to them. The first location they must learn is where the water is; if they know that they are quickly independent from humans for water at least. Every walk begins at the release camp & then in the early days after each location has been explored they all quickly hurry back to the release camp, which they know & feel safe in. The release camp was set up under a fig tree, which the baboons quickly adopted as their sleeping site.

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Presently, the release process has been ongoing for a few months and Stephen has been with them every step of the way. Two weeks in a wild male crossed over, taking over as alpha of the troop; accelerating the release process. The naive & inexperienced captive baboons bowed down to the confident, mature male & he soon leaded them. Stephen was then able to take role as an observer rather than leader. The wild male’s knowledge of his home is far more superior to that of any human. The male, named 'Bubbles' leads the troop to all the best fruit trees, insect packed grass lands and let them in on other secrets to survival in the mountains.

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The data so far confirms that the baboons over time have decreased their dependency on humans to initiate movements, with an increase in foraging trips initiated by Bubbles & also themselves as a troop. Additionally overall the Body Condition scores show that generally the baboons have increased in condition, which is an indicator that they are finding enough food during foraging expeditions. Stephen is presently acting as an observer at the release site, collecting data on movements and activities, he’s due to leave the site in February so that he can prepare for New Troops to be released too. He will be able to check up on KC Troop regularly to ID and head count since they have an established territory and foraging range, in addition to Stephens instinctual and learned knowledge of baboon tracking. Most recently C.A.R.E. has been testing the baboon’s fear of unknown humans and also vehicles. In order for the troop never to be in conflict with humans it is of paramount importance that they run away from both. A hand-raised baboon can be a dangerous baboon if he has no fear of humans, however, Stephen has been reassured by the troops fleeing responses to vehicles and unfamiliar humans. The troop are successfully becoming wild and recently it has been observed that when the troop see a human, even from a distance, they alarm call, remain vigilant and flee together. For some, it is unbelievable that these animals which were once sitting in the laps of humans needing reassuring cuddles are now completely wild. However, they are. Not every baboon coming through C.A.R.E. will be suitable for a life in the wild, some are so badly physically or psychologically damaged that it will not be a possibility but it is certain that most will be. Baboons are incredibly adaptable animals and with the right rehabilitation and release techniques most can look forwards to a future wild like KC Troop and all those that went before them. Stephen certainly kept his promises to Rita and the baboons which they have both dedicated their lives to and continues to prove his unwavering passion and dedication to give the baboons at C.A.R.E. a successful journey into the wild. Stephen is adamant that the rehabilitation and release methods go hand-in-hand and that the releases of baboons can be a huge success if done properly. With so many primates being orphaned and misplaced across the globe perhaps the perfecting of releases of a less-endangered primate like the baboon will help to strengthen the idea that releases of captive primates can be used as a conservation tool. Of course, it is only a possibility when there are suitable habitats available, which has been C.A.R.E.’s biggest stumbling block in the past. Presently though, C.A.R.E. has two other larger sites in the pipeline which should see a conveyor belt of releases happening slowly but surely over the next few years. The future is bright for all the misplaced orphans that have found themselves in Stephen’s devoted care.

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