Six-month-old David, an infant gelada baboon, is turning excited somersaults on Nick’s head; doing little run-ups along his neck and then bouncing expertly off Nick’s head, into the air and landing on Nick’s back.
It’s so funny, I can hardly stop laughing long enough to take a photo and, typically, when I do, my camera malfunctions so that the pictures are dark – the flash didn’t work. Soon David settles down to a bit of grooming. Disappointingly, Nick’s hair is short – certainly in comparison to a male gelada’s – and he doesn’t seem to find anything interesting hidden within. Before long, David’s back to dry-humping Nick’s neck, which everyone finds very entertaining, except Nick, who strangely puts a stop to it and offers David some diversionary oats instead.
He’s spent almost all of his short life as an illegal pet, tied up in someone’s home, before being rescued by Kate, an Englishwoman who lives in Gonder. Yesterday, her husband drove into the Simien Mountains national park and sought out our little group – Gelada baboon researcher Aliza le Roux (from University of Michigan), her assistant Vanessa Wilson, me and Nick – and left us with his little monkey parcel. We had just spent the day among hundreds of these charismatic monkeys (they are, in fact, not true baboons), watching them play, socialise, fight, eat grass and endlessly chatter to each other. It’s the chattering that brought Aliza here. She’s fascinated by gelada ‘conversations’ and has identified more than 30 different vocalisations. “They are wonderful research subjects, because unlike other primates, they don’t hide away in the tree tops, and they talk constantly,” she tells me, when she’s not recording their babblings.
Aliza is a delightfully enthusiastic South African woman, who works tirelessly in this remote, lonely outpost – it took me and Nick nine hours to walk to their house from the nearest town – drawn on by her fascination and love for the geladas. She giggles at the baby baboon antics and points out some of the amusing ways the males interact with each other. She has got to know more than 150 individuals, recorded and named them – the glamourously coated males are named after 70s hair bands.
Gelada baboons are found only in Ethiopia and only in the highlands where their food – alpine grasses – grows. Just as climate change is impacting the human population here (one-tenth of the population relies on food handouts to survive, and that’s before the current drought situation, which more than doubles those in need), the geladas are also affected. The high-protein grasses they eat grow only under certain temperature and moisture conditions. Warmer temperatures and erratic rains mean poorer quality and less grass. And warmer temperatures also allows farmers to grow crops and graze cattle at higher altitudes, again reducing the gelada range. When we visit, there is a high-profile UNESCO and IUCN meeting being held in the park. The armed scouts, whose job it is to prevent illegal overgrazing, seem to be reducing the numbers of herds in the park, Aliza says. But the grass is still very short and we see plenty of pastoralists with goats, cows and donkeys munching the baboons’ lunch. People here are incredibly poor. Famine stalks the land. What grazing there is for livestock will not be reserved for a monkey that locals fear and hate.
Aliza and Vanessa, a sweet Scottish graduate, who’s out here for 6 months, share a small house in the park, the roof and walls were rebuilt for them after being bombed in the war with Somalia during the 1990s. It’s here we take David. He sits on Vanessa’s lap, while Aliza cooks us a lovely dinner and we have tej, the local honey wine, with it. David mews a little during dinner, but after, he settles down to sleep in Vanessa’s lap in front of the fire. They are wonderful hosts and we spend a great evening chatting away, before retiring to our tin hut across the way.
Next morning we’re all up early and David is chattering away. It’s a big day for the little fella: today he’s going to be released into the gelada population that Aliza’s been following. We drive through the park to find them, and they spot David immediately. We’re soon surrounded by hundreds of curious little faces, all pushing past each other to get a look at what the humans have brought in the metal pickup van.
It’s an anxious moment for all of us, rooting for David and his big Born Free moment. Vanessa unties the cord that’s been around his neck for perhaps his whole life, and steps away from him. Panic stricken, the little monkey jumps on Nick for safety and height, overwhelmed by the many baboons. There follows a series of attempts, where he ventures bravely onto the ground and then has an interaction with one or more baboons, and runs to a human for protection.
After a while, a friendly older male extends a hand and David cautiously allows himself to be groomed. This time, when he gets scared by too many approaches, David jumps onto his new friend’s back, who lip-flicks threateningly at the others to keep them back. Above the scene, we humans exchange excited glances: perhaps, it will work?
David appears to join the group for a while, playing with other infants and using his new friend-protector for support. But at some stage, he gets scared by a big female and her babies. He loses his friend and panics, clutching at Nick’s ankles as we try to ignore his chatterings, hoping he seeks support in the group rather than from one of us.
Eventually, Nick and I have to leave the mountains and head down. We leave David, heartbreakingly alone on the grass, far from the group. Aliza and Vanessa end up taking him home again that night, and trying again on subsequent days. We hear that it finally worked, that David has settled into the group and made friends.