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Complaint lodged at FSC for plantations killing baboons

The African environmental group, GeaSphere, has lodged a complaint with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) for certifying tree plantations as sustainable that are culling baboons in South Africa, as first reported by FSC-Watch. The primates are trapped with bait and then shot. According to the complaint, “unofficial numbers from reliable sources state that more than 1000 baboons have been shot over the past 2 years” in Mpumalanga Province.

Documents record permits given to cull 1,914 baboons in 13 separate plantations, however Philip Owen of GeaSphere says that plantations have refused to release official data on how many baboons have been killed.

“We are still not in a position to say exactly how many baboons had been shot, but did learn from a press article that York Timbers had killed 597 baboons in the last two years. We are aware of permits having been issued to York Timbers and Komatiland Forests,” he told

Baboons, considered destructive vermin by the plantation industry, damage the non-native pines by removing their bark in the wet season. In some cases, trees die from the damage inflicted.

Chacma baboon in Botswana. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

The complaint argues that such practices go against FSC principles. A press release from GeaSphere contends: “it is obvious to us that the killing of baboons cannot be arranged with a number of the FSC principles and criteria.”

Yet John Scotcher, FSC contact person in South Africa, told that the baboon culling did not go against any FSC regulations. Furthermore, Scotcher said that the FSC was aware of the culling prior to GeaSphere’s complaint.

The complaint has been formally accepted by the FSC and will now be examined by an independent panel.

“Nobody from the FSC may be a member of the panel. [The panel] will consider the complaint and their findings will be binding on both the complainant and FSC,” Scotcher explained. “If the panel identifies any transgressions of local laws or the FSC Principles and Criteria, then there may be a corrective action required from the affected companies.”

The species of baboon present in South Africa is the Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus). The IUCN Red List lists the primate as Least Concern, but Owen says the fact that the species is listed under Appendix 2 of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) means it could become threatened “if trade is not carefully managed.”

“Unfortunately, we know very little about baboon dynamics in the area. No scientist can tell you how many baboon troops exist in this region—the research does not exist. Even the reasons for the baboons stripping pine bark is not known,” says Owen. While locals often view baboons as pests, they are important seed dispersers according to Owen.

Plantation questions

For GeaSphere the plight of baboons in the area is a symptom of a larger environmental problem caused by large-scale non-native plantations.

“Most of this region in Mpumalanga province has been transformed to alien invasive timber plantations, and natural fauna and flora has been dramatically impacted upon,” Owen say, adding that timber plantations have replaced “biodiverse, primary grassland. In the grassland here, you can find a estimated 4000 plant species…. none of which can survive in timber plantations conditions.”

Infant Chacma baboon in Botswana. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

While no one disputes that baboons harm plantation trees, there is a wide disagreement how to best deal with the situation.

A 2006 study initiated by the timber industry found that the practice of culling baboons had not effectively stopped trees from being damage.

“Although there are, as yet, no firm data, it is clear that current control policies with respect to baboons [trapping and shooting] are not working. Baboon damage to pines is apparently increasing, despite extensive trapping and shooting and, as the data in our report show, there is no simple relationship between the amount of time that baboons spend in pine and the levels of damage. Our view, therefore, is that a new underlying philosophy is needed,” the study concludes.

The study further found that baboons did not favor plantations, but given the low food diversity available in plantations, they are ‘degraded habitat’ for baboons.

“We have no doubt that this hypothesis will not be popular, and may be dismissed out of hand. However, our professional, scientific opinion is that, at present, it is simply not possible to say that control procedures work, or that they represent a cost-effective use of […] resources,” the researchers conclude.

According to GeaSphere the study’s findings and recommendations were ignored by the plantation industry.

The FSC has faced stiff criticism in the past, including criticism from smaller environmental groups for accrediting monoculture plantations and supporting old-growth logging. In 2008, Simon Counsell, Executive Director the Rainforest Foundation UK, dubbed the FSC the ‘Enron of Forestry’. However, the organization remains supported by WWF and Greenpeace among other major environmental groups. In 2008 Greenpeace released a report arguing that FSC required large-scale reform, but should not be terminated.

CITATION: ‘Habitat Structure, Population Characteristics and Resource Utilisation by Chacma Baboons in Commercial Forestry Areas of the Eastern Mpumalanga Escarpment’, Henzi et al. 2006.

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