Unfortunately, my first thought upon seeing the baboon with a shaved head was not, “Get the camera!” Though that certainly would have been rational (and nice for this blog). No, instead my first thought—perhaps equally valid—was that he had escaped from a medical facility where they conducted lobotomies on habituated baboons and he was now on the lam.
It all began with me sitting quietly in the house, counting the minutes until the generator power came on so I could have my evening tea. Then Ashura, the woman who cooks for us, exclaimed, “Andrea! There is a baboon here and maybe he is yours!” Now, there are always baboons around and, on occasion, they are mine, but Ashura doesn’t usually wantonly point them out since, frankly, baboons really aren’t all that special here (the phrase “flies on a piece of poop” comes to mind). So, I obligingly swung myself toward the window to have a peep. And what I saw was not a baboon. I was about to open the door, had a second thought, and then Lisa yelled, “Oh, my God! What is that?” I flung the door wide.
Upon first glance it appeared to be an animal with the body of a baboon and the head of, well, something else. A cow? A giraffe? My mind immediately flew to crazed medical experiments in which they would switch heads between vaguely related species to see…well…I’m not really sure. Maybe just because. I ran out of the house in hot pursuit. Ashura yelled after me, “And he didn’t put his head in flour! That’s his actual color!” It took several minutes for me to process this Swahili comment, barefoot and half-way around the side of the house, but eventually I realized that Ashura had thought it was a baboon whose head was coated in flour after rooting around in someone’s kitchen. Only after staring at it for a bit, did we both realize, no, it’s head had just been shaved. Completely. Like, naked.
Lisa ran back for our flip-flops and we followed the baboon as it headed further into camp. It was strangely unwary of humans, which made me rethink my mad scientist scenario (I discovered later that Lisa had been entertaining similar notions), but it certainly wasn’t a baboon I had ever seen around. Upon closer inspection we noted an orange string dangling from its ear like a tag and I became sure it had escaped a grisly fate.
Eventually, I found one of the baboon field staff, Marini, and, breathless, told them about the baboon “without hair in its head.” He just laughed and then said he’d be there in in a bit. “You know this baboon?” I asked. “Yes. He’s from Mitumba.” (Mitumba is the research station in the northern part of the park). “How did he get here?” I asked. Marini laughed again, but said nothing more.
So, while waiting for the baboon guys to come, Lisa and I contemplated how a baboon had travelled miles from its home and why anyone would shave its head and tie a string to its ear. I suspected an initiation of sorts, a sort of muted version of the Maasai lion hunt. Or perhaps the baboon had woken up in the middle of some procedure, flashed its canines, and run off. There had been whisperings of the weird penis disease the baboons all had in the 90s and I thought maybe I had misunderstood and that it had returned. And somehow the treatment necessitated the complete removal of all cranial hair.
Eventually, the story came out. This male baboon was actually the terror of the northern research station. Dissatisfied with the normal break-in measures—turning door handles, frightening young girls carrying avocados, or storming the kitchen during a non-vigilant moment—this male had taken to ripping the roofs off houses. Granted these are the flimsy, corrugated iron roofs, but he none-the-less had become some sort of hulk-ish super villain that clambered above your head and ripped away your roof, his hot breath stinking up your house as he perused the results of your recent shopping trip. So they darted him and moved him far south. The first time. Three days later, there were reports that he was back. Iddi, the vet, told the people at Mitumba that they were mistaken. “He can’t be back,” he assured them. I agreed. Baboon males transfer groups often, so if you ship one off to the nether reaches of the park, he should just wake up, shake his foggy head, and try to join ranks with his nearest neighbors. But not this guy, apparently. So, this morning, they tried again. They darted him and, to make sure identification was 100% impossible to confuse—and here the logic breaks down for me a bit—they shaved his entire head. Baby smooth and porcelain white. Then they packed him in a boat and drove him several valleys down, depositing him in the forest around one in the afternoon. At 6:00 PM he was beelining past my house, trekking back to Mitumba. “He’s not a baboon,” Iddi said. “I don’t know what he is, but he is definitely not a baboon.” And, honestly, I might just agree.