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Gelada Baboons – By Greg Du Toit

Africa is such an incredibly diverse continent! Not only do we have a very unique set of large mammalian species like Giraffe, Zebra and Elephant but the continent is also blessed with an incredible array of primates. Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees definitely seem to steal the show but high up in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, one finds a very unique and bizarre species of primate.

As it currently stands, this creature is called the Gelada Baboon. I say currently, because recent and ongoing research is suggesting that the Gelada Baboon is more closely related to a monkey and it might well be reclassified in the near future. On a recent trip to the highlands of Ethiopia, I went in search of the Gelada Baboons for the very first time, and spending time with them was undoubtedly the best primate experience that I have had to date!

The Gelada Baboons are unique for many reasons: firstly they live at an incredibly high altitude above 4000 metres (13 123 ft). That is almost a kilometer higher than the top of the Drakensburg Mountain range in South Africa! Secondly, although Gelada Baboons have incredibly long canines, like other baboons in Africa, they are almost exclusively grazers. Yes, you read correct, they eat grass! This brings me onto the 3rd highly unique attribute: Gelada Baboons have the highest degree of flexibility between their index fingers and their thumbs of any primate. Not only do these little ‘monkeys’ have opposable thumbs but they are so dexterous that they can pluck short grass from the mountaintop at an incredible speed, stopping only occasionally to pass gastric wind from the fermenting grass.

Spending time with Gelada Baboons is nothing short of an incredible life experience. They mutter and groan constantly as they shuffle their bottoms over the mountainous terrain of the highlands of Ethiopia and they let you sit quietly in the middle of their troop which numbering up 400 members, is really more of a community. Sleeping on the very vertical cliffs of the Simien Mountains, they crawl up to the plateau early in the morning and feed for the day, before descending at dusk to their steep roosting sites.

A wildlife photographer always wants to try to do his beautiful subjects justice through the lens, and since I was so blown away by these little primates, I was feeling the pressure to try and capture not just a special portrait of a Gelada but one that also showed the wonderful environment of the highlands of Ethiopia in which they live. One late afternoon, I saddled up to a big male baboon and I followed him patiently as he went about his foraging. He slowly let me get close enough to use my wide-angle lens.

Nikon D3S, 20mm lens, hand held, ISO 640 F22 1/250th

Greg du Toit

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