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Randy Baboons Terrorise Swazis

James Hall

The people of Galile, Swaziland, have a randy baboon problem, and political opportunists want to use this as a means to weaken a highly effective anti-poaching act.

Galile residents say the baboons speak English, not SiSwati. "Don't you hear them at night, conspiring among themselves to go after what they want?" Heather Shongwe asks a neighbour who drops by to exchange information about the phenomenon.

They believe they have a lot to be nervous about, as potential victims of the beasts. What bothers Shongwe is not the baboon's ability to converse, but what they talk about.

"They want to have sex with our women," says Musa Mlothswa, who claims to have heard the baboons at night. "All the women and girls are terrified. The baboons threaten us. They have shown they have the ability to take our women by force."

The evidence of the baboons' nocturnal rampages is clearly seen in the torn thatch of hut roofs, the ripped branches of banana trees and simian footprints in the dust at dawn.

"The baboons scream and rip at our roofs," says Shongwe. "We hear them shout for sex. That is all that is on their minds, sex, sex, sex."

And what does an English-speaking baboon sound like? Mlothswa says: "It is an inhuman sound. To hear it makes you cold to your bones."

No resident cares to explain the appeal the Swazi women of Galile have for the baboons, or why the animals are suddenly so randy. But the fear and tension in the area is real. The local chief convened a community meeting where it was resolved to seek weapons from the authorities to rid the area of the menace before one of the primates satisfies his cravings.

In traditional Swazi thinking, baboons, with their half-human appearance and demeanour, are messengers and helpers for witches. The sight of a baboon frightens many people.

Dr Phineas Ndzimandze, a physician in Manzini, says: "Some sort of mass hysteria has overtaken the community. We see this from time to time, usually involving groups of people who believe they have been bewitched. Usually such incidents run their course."

Gideon Msibi, a game ranger, says: "It could be that someone is playing a prank, or the people overhear some drunks shouting. It doesn't take a lot to get people excited in these backward areas."

If the community does receive guns from the authorities, and baboons are shot, residents will find support in the Swaziland Senate. Some senators have for years pursued a campaign to overturn one of Swaziland's most effective crime prevention laws, the Game Act. Senator Queen Motsa submitted that in the case of the randy baboons of Galile, the law is hindering a way to prevent abuse of humans by animals.

"I will help these women deal with the menace," she told the Senate chamber.

"If [the baboons] are a danger, they must be killed."

Other senators concurred, including several who spoke out against the Game Act for "putting the lives of animals ahead of people".

Ted Reilly, executive director of the Big Game Parks of Swaziland, counters: "In fact, the Act protects people, namely the game wardens, from other people, the poachers, while protecting the country's endangered animals that are our great heritage."

When the law was enacted in 1993 80% of Swaziland's rhino population had been wiped out by poachers using AK-47s. But the Game Act imposed stiff penalties, such as mandatory minimum prison sentences without option of a fine, and incarceration without option of bail until trial. Since its enactment, poaching has dropped 80%.

"Not a single rhino has been lost," says Reilly.

If, as conservationists proclaim, the stiffest anti-poaching law in Africa is a model other nations are studying to curb their own animal endangerment problems, why are legislators in the Senate so critical?

Conservationists accuse some officials of corruption, and say traditionalists among the senators desire a return to days of unlimited and unencumbered hunting. Those days resulted in the extinction of virtually all big game in Swaziland.

If Ndzimandze's theory holds that the baboon fear will fade away long before one of the allegedly lusty animals has his way with a Galile woman, the danger of turning back the clock on animal conservation appears to be a danger that will persist.

Copyright 2001 Mail & Guardian. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (