How to Survive an Encounter With a Baboon

Tips and Tricks to Stay Safe

Hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) snarling, close-up
Hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas). (Stuart Westmorland/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

If you’re hiking in the area of Cape Town, South Africa, you’ll likely see a baboon warning sign alerting you to baboon danger. Don’t take the warning lightly. Baboons can be more than a nuisance; they can cause serious harm if you don’t take necessary precautions or act appropriately when you encounter them on the trail. Here’s what you need to know about how to survive a baboon encounter while hiking.

Descriptions and Habitat

Five different species of baboons exist, and while they range in size and color, they have some characteristics in common. They have tails and move like monkeys, walking on their hands and feet, or standing upright on their feet and climbing trees with their hands and feet.

Baboons have a long snout like a dog’s muzzle, and they have very powerful jaws and sharp upper canine teeth. They have thick fur covering their bodies that can be light brown, dark brown, gray, and other similar color variations, but it doesn't cover their faces or protruding buttocks. Adult baboons can weigh between 30 and 100 pounds, depending on species and gender. Baboons organize themselves into groups called troops which often consist of about 50 baboons. When you see one baboon, you will often see many all at once.

Hiking and Dangers

Baboons live primarily in Africa’s savannahs and woodlands, but they are very adaptable ground-dwelling primates and can live in a variety of environments, as long as they have a water source and a safe place to sleep, such as trees or cliffs.

They also live in environments that encroach upon urban areas, so they’re often encountered on popular hiking trails in Cape Town, South Africa, for instance.

Some baboons are socialized to human behavior and have learned how to open car doors or go into homes. They are opportunistic and can go after food or other objects that attract them.

They eat mainly plants and fruits, but they also sometimes eat hares, birds, small monkeys, and antelope.

If you encounter a baboon troop while hiking, first realize that they are not looking at you as food. They’re not driven to attack and eat you, but if you threaten their territory or if you have something that they want, like food, they may be driven to defend themselves or act out to get what they want. They can become dangerous primarily when they feel threatened or when they’re socialized to associate humans with food.

Large male baboons will defend the others in their troop, so if you get too close to them, a large male might present himself and stand between you and the others. Males will often show their large front teeth as a warning sign. If you don’t heed it, they can charge at you. They can also vocalize sounds of alarm when they feel threatened. If one is threatened enough to charge and then bite you, its bite can easily break bones or even kill, as male baboons have long, sharp incisors and incredibly powerful jaws.

Survival Tips

When you encounter baboons on a hiking trail, here are a few things to do as well as avoid:

  • Remain calm and stand up straight to display a strong and confident yet non-threatening behavior.
  • Do not walk through a troop of baboons; instead, wait for an opportunity to walk around them, or wait for them to leave before you proceed.
  • If they don’t appear threatened by your presence and if they won’t move from the trail, keep your distance and make a loud noise such as clapping your hands to encourage them to move on.
  • Do not smile or show your teeth; male baboons may view this action as a sign of aggression.
  • Baboons can mock charge you and sometimes back off when only inches away.
  • Get rid of any food that you may have in your hands by securing it in your backpack.
  • Be prepared to quickly unclip and leave your backpack if a baboon tries to go after any of your gear or food inside.
  • Never feed a baboon, and never try to grab back food or anything else that it takes from you. Baboons can fight aggressively to defend food that they’ve taken.
  • Avoid using pepper spray as baboons can interpret it as an attack and act aggressively to fight back.
  • If one presents itself aggressively by standing tall, showing its teeth, vocalizing a threat, or charging towards you, don’t make eye contact, and back away slowly without turning your back.