Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals Top 10 Countdown, #6: Wading With Baboons

The following is part of a top ten list written originally for The Times (London) by Richard Conniff from his new book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals (W.W. Norton).

It was an ordinary morning on a dusty island in the vast, flooded Okavango Delta. A troop of baboons, and the naturalists who study them, had been wandering all morning, everyone alert for the ordinary African hazards of Cape buffalo, elephants, and lions. We carried no weapons, so avoidance was our only defense. If the baboons decided to cross the water to the next island, we would have to wade in along with them. We were hoping it wasn’t going be one of those nasty days when a crocodile launches itself missile-like from the bottom, or a hippo tramples someone underfoot. The baboons milled around on the shoreline, muttering “hunh, hunh,” as if considering the same dire possibilities.

Then an elderly female with a reputation for fearlessly attacking leopards waded in up to her armpits. A wave of grunting passed through the troop, like the naysaying of backbenchers in the House of Commons. An elder statesmen among the males stepped out in the lead female’s wake, and others soon followed. Each of us thought, “Oh, man, I’m gonna get eaten alive out there.” Then, one by one, we stepped out into the still water.