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Baboon Mother Refuses to Part with Remains of Dead Baby

by Scotch Macaskill

In her book, "Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters", scientist and author Jane Goodall writes as follows of a colobus monkey clasping its dead baby:

"She kept trying to groom its poor little coat. Oh, it was heart rending. I'm only so glad I've never seen a chimp with a dead baby. I just couldn't bear it."

This powerful maternal instinct in non-human Primates is evidently well-documented. I witnessed an example on a visit to South Africa's Kruger National Park.

In this case it was a Chacma baboon carrying the remains of a dead infant on its back, refusing to part with its baby in spite of the advanced state of decomposition (below).

Baboon mother carrying remains of dead baby
Mother baboon carrying remains of dead baby on her back

I was travelling with Kevin Podmore, a buddy of mine, towards Satara camp, where we would be meeting the rest of our group. Kevin is one of those people who's passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the bush and wildlife, so I was fortunate to be in his company.

We'd left our overnight stop very early and it was only about 8.30am when we drove across the Sabie River, close to the popular Lower Sabie Camp.

As we were about to cross, a troop of baboons emerged from the bushes and started making their way over the bridge.

One particular baboon, as it headed towards us, looked to me like it had some loose bits of skin flapping around its haunches.

Kevin had immediately spotted that it was in fact carrying a dead baby on its back and urged me to get some pictures. I could tell from the excitement in his voice that this was not average baboon behaviour.

As the baboon drew level with our vehicle and then moved purposefully ahead with the rest of the troop, we could clearly see the bundle of skin and bones draped over her tail.

Baboon mother with remains of dead infant clearly visible on her back
As baboon draws level, the bundle of skin and bones draped over her tail is clearly visible (above & below)

Chacma baboon mother carrying remains of dead infant on her back

We were fortunately able to follow the troop as they made their way across the bridge.

Activity was fairly typical as they moved along, with pauses to look for food, a quick grooming and even a hurried coupling in the middle of the road by one pair - but nothing exceptional. Certainly none of them paid any attention to the one carrying the dead baby.

What was amazing though was that as she walked along, this pathetic bundle of skin and sinew would periodically slip off her back and land on the ground.

She would then immediately pick it up, replace and adjust it while she continued walking - as if well-practised (see below).

Baboon replacing dead infant remains on her back
Baboon replaces infant remains acrosss her back as she continues walking (above & below)

Baboon adjusting remains of dead infant on her back

Once we'd crossed the bridge the troop moved off the road and then into the bushes again.

Was the episode heart-rending? I didn't find it so, mainly because of the baby's state of decomposition. I was nevertheless moved by this mother's stoic determination not to abandon her offspring.

See also Baboon Skirmishes and Chases for more about these interesting primates.

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