Baboons are rational. They minimize the effort required to attain a given number of calories or, alternatively, maximize the amount of calories obtained from a given amount of effort. Given a choice between spending hours searching for fruit and seeds, or scarfing some left over potato chips, they’ll take the leftovers every time. Once they learn that humans keep bananas and other delicious food lying around in their kitchens, they break into homes, or enter through any open window, and pilfer anything edible.
Their behaviour can be explained by a rational model of crime: steal if the benefits of doing so are greater than the expected probability of getting caught times the anticipated penalty if caught.
Unfortunately, no one tells baboons the penalty schedule: for them, petty theft is a capital offense. In the South African National Park (SANPark) I visited recently, baboons that become too habituated to humans are euthanized. It’s hard to criticize this policy – Canadians do the same with “garbage bears”, and for much the same reasons. They’re a danger to humans, and there aren’t many other alternatives. Rehabilitation doesn't work. If I was a baboon, I’d prefer a quick bullet in the head to a lifetime in a zoo anyways.
What upset me, however, was SANPark's feeble attempts at deterrence, at stopping baboons from choosing human garbage over wild gooseberries: a few signs saying “feeding a baboon is signing its death warrant”; a 500 Rand ($55) or so fine for feeding baboons.
There is an alternative: serious prevention. Just about every Canadian national park has bear and raccoon-proof garbage cans. They don’t prevent bears from coming near humans, but they reduce the benefits of doing so. SANParks even has a model baboon-proof garbage can on their website, but none were in evidence in the park I visited.
Why not? I don't think it's stupidity or ignorance - it's not hard to figure that baboons are getting into the garbage and eating it. I doubt it's cost - it's not that expensive to build a plywood box for garbage and put a lock on it. I suspect it has more to do with the way institutions work. Maintenance of the rest camp and the restaurant is one group's responsibility. Wildlife management is another group's responsibility.
No one talks to anyone else, and baboons continue on with their deathly rational calculus.