In 1952 I lived in Tanganyika with my missionary parents. We lived rough, setting up tents in a forested peninsula on the shores of lake Victoria. The area had recently been opened to homesteaders and hundreds of Sukuma people were in the process of clearing trees and planting garden. But the area also teemed with wildlife and gardening with animals in the nearby forest was problematic. The biggest problem for the farmers was – BABOONS!
These terrestrial monkeys were clever and quickly learned there was tasty food to be found in the fields. A large troop of baboons could ruin a field of corn or sweet potatoes in a few minutes. They did not just eat a little, but pulled up whole sweet potato vines and left them to die. They would also pick a number of ears of corn and take one bite out of each. When the baboons left the field they would carry as many ears as they could, holding them in their hands and stuck under their armpits.
Near harvest time the Sukuma men would build platforms in their fields and sit there all day with stones and slings trying to chase the baboons away. Male baboons are large primates with formidable canine teeth, longer than that of a lion. Baboons tended to stay away from a field if a man was the guard on the platform. But the baboons could distinguish a man from women or children. When the latter were guarding the field, the baboons would jump up and down and show their teeth. The women and children then ran and abandoned the field to the marauders.
The farmers had to be on constant guard. As long as men were on the platforms, they were fairly effective. But on Sundays the pastors of the churches would beat their drums to announce the starting times of the services. Upon hearing the drums the men would climb down from their platforms and hike off to the little grass-roofed churches. The baboons soon figured this out. The fields were temporarily unguarded after the beating of the drums. For the baboons the beating of the drums became an invitation for Sunday dinner and they would invade the fields with impunity. So many crops were being lost that men stopped coming to church on Sundays because they had to guard their crops. This went on until the harvest was brought in.
The colonial government was sensitive to the plight of farmers and all baboons were designated as vermin and could be killed. In fact the government offered a reward of two shillings for every baboon tail turned in to the local government office. When I heard this I was convinced I had a new business and would make lots of shillings. So I went about trying to hunt baboons. I finally shot a couple and after that the baboons recognized that I was dangerous and they stayed out of range. I would sometimes hear them giving their warning bark in the forest, but when I tried to follow up they always melted away. My father was a better hunter and he shot a number of baboons with the 30.06 rifle. This was most effective, but baboons learn quickly and they soon gave my father a wide berth. The Sukuma people started calling my father Bwana Maguku, Master of the Baboons.
Baboons live in troops and each troop has a large territory. Within this territory they have their special roosting trees that they sleep in at night to stay out of the reach of leopards. One particular troop was becoming increasingly problematic, raiding the fields on a regular basis. The villagers came frequently to ask for our help and we would go out with our guns, but the troop was wise to us and always retreated to a particular patch of thick forests. After some thinking my father came up with a brilliant idea. He would find out where the troop slept and ambush them at night. For a couple of evenings he studied the forest with binoculars until he discovered their favorite sleeping tree. This troop of over thirty baboons was made up of dominant males, adolescents, breeding females and black babies. Each night they would all climb the same tree. Then, with a lot of screeching, they would find seats on the outlying branches and settle down for the night. Baboons have tough pink callosites on their bottoms for a purpose - sitting on small branches all night without their rear-ends going numb.
Once my father knew where the troop slept, he made plans to sneak down to the tree under cover of darkness and then to shine a bright spotlight on them. He could then shoot them from short range. Stuck up in the tree they would be like sitting ducks and he could end the baboon scourge for good. On the night chosen for the hunt we gathered up our gear. We had a twelve-volt spotlight with lots of power but it was intended for use in a car with a twelve-volt battery. So we had to add a strong Sukuma man to the hunting party and he carried the heavy battery on his shoulder. The three of us quietly crept down the baboon trails until we eventually arrived directly under the sleeping tree. We could hear the baboons above us chuckling and murmuring quietly in their sleep. My father got the spotlight wired up and hit the switch. The baboons were instantly lit up against the night and my father shot a big male baboon. The 30.06 was a noisy rifle and it gave a loud ka-boom. Immediately there was pandemonium in the tree above. All the baboons started screaming hysterically. We were immediately deluged in gallons of sticky liquid as all the baboons vacated their bowels and urinary tracts. The baboons knew they were trapped in the light. They were blinded and could not see the ground, but nevertheless they all leaped into space and came tumbling to the ground. It was raining baboons all around us. I particularly remember one baboon putting both hands over his face before he leaped into the black void. Within seconds it was all over. We killed only one baboon and we were a sorry mess. We had to abandon our clothing and have a good wash before my mother would let us back in the house. But the hunt did have a positive effect. The baboons were so traumatized by the night hunt that they abandoned that part of their territory and moved away for good.