Australian biologist Mat Pines with Hamadryas baboons in Awash National Park.
Australian biologist Mat Pines with Hamadryas baboons in Awash National Park. John Brown

Aussie biologist goes bush with Africa's baboons

BABOONS are not the cutest or sexiest animals on screen but they deserve our respect and protection, says Aussie biologist Mat Pines.

The 38-year-old stars in the BBC documentary Living With Baboons, narrated by Sir David Attenborough and airing on Channel 10 tonight.

Pines pitched the idea to the BBC after meeting filmmakers who travelled to Ethiopia to film the baboons for a segment in the Life series.

A family of Hamadryas baboons in a scene from the TV documentary Living With Baboons. Supplied by Network Ten.
A family of Hamadryas baboons in a scene from the TV documentary Living With Baboons. Supplied by Network Ten.

Pines said it was a coup to get Attenborough's cooperation on the project.

"We were incredibly lucky," he said.

"He rarely does this kind of commentary anymore. They showed him the earlier version of the doco and he liked it and agreed to do it.

"It's a real coup for us. It's on a higher level having his name associated with it."

The documentary follows Pines during his five years spent living in the bush in Ethiopia's Awash National Park studying a troupe of about 200 Hamadryas baboons.

Pines was working as a research officer at the University of Queensland when he decided to apply for the volunteer position with the Filoha Hamadryas Project.

He'd never been to Africa and had no previous experience with baboons.

"There was a certain degree of chance to it," he said.

"When I started my PhD in 2000 I went to Borneo and did some brief field work with wild orang-utans and loved it. I promised myself I'd go do more field work. This possibility in Ethiopia happened to pop up at the right time and I did want to do something with primates.

"I originally intended to come for one year, but as I got more involved with the conservation that one year stretched into five years."

Pines and his Ethiopian colleagues would walk up to 35km a day tracking the baboons, which spend the nights in the protection of rocky cliffs but head out on to the park's dry plains to forage for food during the day.

The documentary focuses on Pines' efforts to strike a peace deal with the local Afar tribe, who commonly shoot the baboons for target practice or when the monkeys, which can weigh up to 30kg, threaten their livestock.

Two Afar tribesmen pictured with guns in a scene from the TV documentary Living With Baboons. Supplied by Network Ten.
Two Afar tribesmen pictured with guns in a scene from the TV documentary Living With Baboons. Supplied by Network Ten.

"In Africa baboons are considered by many to be vermin. They raid crops, hassle tourists and kill livestock but these animals are amazing survivors," he said.

"They live in this incredibly harsh environment where there are many dangers and they have evolved a very complex society which allows them to thrive in this very harsh environment."

Males keep harems of up to a dozen females in line through violent means and Pines has observed the male baboons' bloody battles for females and dominance.

"While judged from our own human values it might not be something we look happily upon but baboons are still a fascinating animal," he said.

"For me, every day I was with them was amazing."

Pines now lives in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Adaba and teaches biology and conservation at an international school.

But he isn't finished with the baboons of Awash National Park.

He now takes his students there to see his former research subjects, many of which he knows by name, and study the issues facing the park.

"I've been back five times in the last two years," he said.

"One of the things I've been able to organise is a school trip out to the national park where students go to have a look at some of the issues confronting it, from the environment to conservation, the people like the Afar and also look at development in general in Ethiopia."

The documentary is also a record for his two adopted children, Beza, 22 months, and Asteway, 9 months.

"In 15 years time, my two young children will get to see what their father was doing in his earlier years," he said.

"It's a very nice visual reminder of what I was doing."

Living With Baboons airs tonight at 6pm on Channel 10.


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