MAKKAH: Baboon appearances in several Saudi urban areas have become a concern recently, with sightings of the primates strolling and jumping around deep in the heart of cities. The question is: What next?
In recent days, baboons have appeared in several neighborhoods in the capital city of Riyadh. The animals are believed to be natives of the Western Region’s Sarawat mountains, mostly in the southwestern areas from Taif to Asir and beyond. The sightings in the Central Region, however, are new.
Arab News spoke to Ahmed Al-Bouq, supervisor of the national launch program and the research and breeding centers of the National Center for Wildlife, to understand more about herd migrations and what seems to be the domestication of the wild animals.
“There are two files on the center’s table that will see the light soon. One of them evaluates the size and numbers of the monkey population in the Kingdom, the types of problems they cause, and their locations. This large study will include an experimental application of several solutions in two locations, one of which is within the city and the other in an agricultural area,” he said, adding that the results of the study would be followed by applied work to reduce these problems and that the files would be presented this year.
The other file, he explained, addresses the problems of monkeys in Makkah, the holy sites, Jabal Al-Nour, Al-Adel, Duqm Al-Wabr and Jabal Al-Rahma. It focuses on where they were domesticated, what the size of their population is, and the role of people in increasing their numbers, especially since they are located in historical areas and interact with visitors.
Hamadryas baboons are powerful and aggressive animals, though they will more often than not show their friendlier side when they need food. Officials in the area have warned residents to not feed the animals. The baboons swarm in the hundreds and steal food as a result of direct and indirect human activity, dumping food and remains in public parks. Cooking in undesignated areas has attracted the baboon populations and allowed them to enter cities in search of food.
With the baboons boldly walking into cities and farmlands more often as of late, citizens have erected scarecrows in the shape of wild animals to frighten them off. “They think they have come up with a brilliant and unprecedented idea, but they don’t know that they are dealing with very intelligent animals that can anticipate each move,” said Al-Bouq.
According to Al-Bouq, the center has tried all kinds of techniques for the past three decades to steer the baboons away from city limits, including exposing them to scarecrows and the sounds and scents of predators, but he stressed that they are very intelligent creatures. “These methods may succeed for a short period, but it is very difficult to influence the baboons through such primitive ways in the long term.
“These animals have existed for thousands of years in Arabia and cannot be completely detached from the region,” he said.
Periods of development and economic boom have meant that the baboons’ natural habitat has often been invaded. This continuous sabotage over the course of many years — excessive logging, destruction of forests, and the killing of natural predators such as tigers, hyenas, wolves, and lynxes — led to the rise of the “monkey phenomenon” in different regions of the Kingdom. They began to flee from the natural areas in which they lived to agricultural areas, attacking the livelihood of farmers.
Al-Bouq said that killing the animals was not a viable solution, stressing the important issue of maintaining ecological balance.
Environmental expert Dr. Ali Eshki agrees, also attributing the presence of the monkeys in Saudi cities to “a kind of environmental imbalance.”
Meanwhile, citizens are trying to keep the monkeys away from their homes, farms and children as best they can, which is what Naji Al-Abdali told Arab News, describing the situation as a daily struggle.
“They vandalize the farm in just three hours, overturning years of work cultivating coffee, millet, and barley.”