ARts and Science

Urban baboon research takes centre stage

South African actor Andrew Buckland with the baboon mask, that is a vital part of the play. Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht

An unusual urban dweller is dividing communities and leaving residents frustrated by government inaction in South Africa. Building on Centre research, a new theatre play tells an emotional story to democratize research and address human conflicts over nature.

Story highlights

  • Centre researchers partnered with a theatre group in an innovative way of communicating science
  • The play is part of a research project that captures Cape Town residents’ attitudes toward the baboons that frequent their neighborhoods
  • The play and post-show dialogues was a way of sharing research findings and “democratizing” the research

"I´m amazed by how theatre can engage people. It is clear how many people really feel seen, but are also able to reflect on the different sides to the story", says Johan Enqvist, Centre researcher, who partnered with the theatre group Empatheatre in an innovative way of communicating science.

In the first week of June, “Unruly” premiered and toured seven different baboon-visited neighborhoods in Cape Town, playing at town halls, churches and school assembly halls – all shows but one fully booked. The play is part of the Unruly Natures research project, looking to understand how people in cities deal with nature that is not behaving the way they expect it to. With surveys and in-depth interviews, it captures residents’ attitudes towards the baboons that frequent their neighborhoods. Cape Town’s municipal authorities is currently in charge of keeping baboons out of urban areas, but have announced that it is stepping back from this role by the end of 2024, creating lots of frustration and stress.

“The baboon issue is highly divisive, and knowing that simply sharing research findings in a conventional way risks being ignored, or accused of only speaking for either the baboon 'huggers' or 'haters', we chose to do something different”, explains Johan Enqvist.

Followed by dialogues

The show stars Andrew Buckland, a highly renowned South African performer, who plays multiple characters in a story centered on a man who gets swept up in the escalating baboon politics after the matriarch of the local baboon troop mysteriously disappears. Each show was followed by a facilitated dialogue where audiences could share how they felt and thought.

”To create spaces in which we humans can exercise and practice the skill of empathy; this seems to me to be at the very heart and core of the act of theatre,” Andrew Buckland says.

“The ‘baboon issue’ often gets described as a human/wildlife conflict, but it spans deeper into our relationships as humans, and how often we misunderstand each other. It’s more about humans and how we navigate our neighborhoods,“ explains Neil Coppen, Empatheatre Director and writer of the play.

The baboon play. Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht

“We had people both laugh and cry at every show, and it was clear from the post-show dialogues that people felt seen and like we had captured the complexity and nuance of what it is like living in communities where fights over baboons are common,” says Johan Enqvist.

He underlines that the play and post-show dialogues was a way of sharing research findings and “democratizing” the research by allowing stakeholders to give their feedback and pose new questions.

“The many heartfelt ‘thank you’s’ we got showed that people really appreciate a chance to engage with the issue in a new way – to laugh at how ridiculous the situation sometimes is, or sit with the sadness of failing to coexist peacefully with both baboons and other humans,” says Johan Enqvist.

The findings from the research project prior to the show that residents feel concern for and fear of baboons, but most still don’t mind them entering their neighborhoods and the baboons are seen as mostly calm and curious. More people blame residents for the problems that occur, than baboons.

Urban wildlife

Similar research is conducted on black bears in North American cities and wild boars across many cities in European and Asian ones. Urban wildlife ranges from relatively harmless animals like deer and rabbits, merely destroying garden plants, to leopard, hyenas and mountain lions.

“Baboons are one example of many species that are adaptable enough to be able to exploit and even thrive in human-dominated landscapes. If we can learn how to manage them, or more often, how to manage people’s responses to them, I think that holds very important lessons for how we live in the Anthropocene, where virtually no ecosystems are unaffected by human activities,” says Johan Enqvist.

Theatre, as well as other arts-based methods, can play a really important role when communicating and discussing research about highly polarizing and political sustainability issues, he adds.

Communicating science

“We often see that 'more science' and 'more information' does very little to change people’s opinions – many of these issues are more about people’s feelings and values. The arts, and creative forms of storytelling, are better at connecting with people,” says Johan Enqvist.

“It’s hard to solve complex problems on your own but forming networks of dedicated people can be a powerful way forward. This play creates a social space where these new relationships can form and ideas about future pathways can emerge. It’s an opportunity to let go of something and possibly embrace something new. Together we are taking an important step in the unfolding evolution of baboon governance,” comments Kinga Psiuk, another Centre researcher who is involved in the Unruly Natures project.

The research shows almost half of survey respondents said they had baboon encounters inside their homes. Still, not a single one reported that they had been physically harmed by a baboon in their area – although they can also quickly cause a lot of damage to a kitchen in search of food.

“There is no easy fix to this issue, making everybody happy. The challenge to me as a researcher is to try and capture this complexity, and to share it with others in ways that build a bit more trust despite the differences, and hopefully create a foundation for more productive collaborations,” concludes Johan Enqvist.

The play was financed by Swedish Formas. A second tour is tentatively planned for October/November 2024.

Published: 2024-06-26

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