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Stephen and Blue into the Wild

Blue, a powerful adult male chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) and the rest of his rehabilitated troop, once hand-raised as infants are presently being released by Stephen Munro, Managing Director of C.A.R.E.

The Release-Project funded by IPPL (The International Primate Protection League) is being led by Stephen Munro, who once acted as a surrogate father to Blue; formerly a helpless and vulnerable orphaned chacma. Stephen, C.A.R.E.'s (The Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) now Managing Director is leading Blue and his troop through their final stages of a long rehabilitation journey to freedom in a remote mountain reserve within the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

Above: Stephen with orphan Blue as an infant.

The release of a large-bodied, hand-raised, intelligent primate who possesses canines larger than an adult lion and lives in a complex social group is never going to be an easy undertaking. However, that is exactly what C.A.R.E.'s late Founder Rita Miljo is renowned for and accomplished in 1994, again in 1996 and twice in the year 2000.

Stephen and orphan Blue’s journey first began when Stephen joined C.A.R.E. in 2003 more than ten years after Rita's pioneering release. Stephen volunteered at C.A.R.E. initially as a student of Aberdeen University to gain experience as part of his Animal Care Batchelor Degree. Soon, he became a surrogate ‘father’ to week-old orphan Blue and then a tiny pink faced female he named Scruffy. Stephen raised these orphans in a peer-rearing setting at C.A.R.E., along with several other orphans which became KC troop. C.A.R.E.’s rehabilitation methods rely on a combination of hand-rearing and peer-rearing of orphan primates into social troops. The human rehabilitator adopts the role of the adult primate and acts as a facilitator; providing stability promoting emotional security and ensuring a smooth integration of the defenceless infant into a new troop. At about one year old the orphans are physically and emotionally independent from humans if they have been raised appropriately. The young baboons have established a hierarchy and friendship bonds, therefore the weaning from humans begins. At around about this age, humans are no longer needed to aid the physical development of the orphans, they can now hold a bottle for themselves, forage for solid foods and the juveniles have established an understanding with one another; friends back each other up when needed, the youngsters learn to redirect aggression wisely and respond suitably to diffuse any dominance displays. The juveniles whether with their wild troop or within captivity become increasingly independent and capable. Alliances formed within their troop means they no longer rely on protection from their mother or father but can settle disputes with help from their friends. Blue found his way with Stephens helping hands and became alpha of KC Troop. When Blue was established and confident Stephen returned to Scotland to complete his degree. Like many others, the charming chacmas stole the Scotsman’s heart and after completing his studies Stephen quickly returned to C.A.R.E. to help Rita and the indigent baboons.

In 2006, Stephen became C.A.R.E.'s Release Manager and he embarked on the release of Henry’s Troop. Rita began teaching him all that she had learned. Stephen’s first release was a huge success. After approximately six months, Stephen finally left Henry’s Troop, comfortable in the knowing that they were orientated, remaining cohesive, foraging efficiently and scared of unknown humans. There was a 75% survival rate after one year. Rita, running C.A.R.E. on a shoe-string budget, proceeded to drop Stephen into the wilderness to carry out post-release monitoring every now and then; armed only with a notepad, pair of binoculars, a rucksack, sleeping back, a few small provisions and a cell-phone. Each time Stephen relished the opportunity and was in his absolute element. Two years and eight months after the release Stephen observed a 64% survival rate and confirmed that at least four babies had been born and two wild males had joined the troop.

Back at the centre Blue and his troop were steadily growing, maturing and becoming increasingly independent of human dependence. With C.A.R.E.’s successes and Rita’s indomitable reputation the centre became the place to take orphan baboons to. C.A.R.E. was fast becoming saturated with orphans in need of help. Stephen continued to release the baboons as soon as the rare opportunities of safe habitat presented themselves and has the experience of five releases of rehabilitated, hand-raised chacma baboons under his belt.

Stephen stepped-up to manage C.A.R.E. at the end of 2008 and was entrusted with Rita's life's work in 2012 after she died tragically in the devastating fire. Rita left the property upon which C.A.R.E. is built to Stephen, who is completely, incontestably devoted to the cause. After recruiting and training a team at the centre, Stephen is glad to be back out in the wilderness releasing again. This time around he is releasing the baboons which he began his journey at C.A.R.E with; Blue and Scruffy's troop of 19 baboons. 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. 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 and mango orchards and 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 and 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 seemingly 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 and human presence is rare. The males therefore, have abundant chances of safely finding a new and suitable troop when they come to disperse.

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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 off warning calls for unfamiliar birds and cows. Stephen’s job in those early days is to orientate the baboons, meanwhile maintaining calm and 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 and then in the early days after each location has been explored they all quickly hurry back to the release camp, which they know and feel safe in. The release camp was set up under a fig tree, which the baboons quickly adopted as their sleeping site.

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 and inexperienced captive baboons bowed down to the confident, mature male and 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.

Above: James Bond and Scruffy, both once hand-raised and now wild.

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 and 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. This notion is similar to the suggestion of baboon expert Dr Shirley Strum (2005) who suggested that suitable methods of primate translocations should be improved and developed using a less-endangered primate such as the baboon. Of course, releasing captive animals 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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