The Ecology of Gelada Baboons

Gelada baboons are a little-known monkey species that lives only in the frigid highlands of Ethiopia. Thousands of years ago, many species of geladas flourished (including one that grew as large as a gorilla!), but today, due to a long history of habitat destruction and hunting, only one species remains, Theropithecus gelada. Only a handful of gelada populations are known today, most of them at a height above 10,000 feet, where their alpine grassland habitats have not yet been converted to farmland. Geladas remain less studied than many other African primates due to the war and political instability that gripped Ethiopia through much of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

With the Ethiopian Highlands finally open to researchers again, Dr. Peter Fashing of the Pittsburgh Zoo and Dr. Nga Nguyen of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo recently initiated a study of geladas aimed at gaining a better understanding of their behavior, ecology, and conservation biology. They identified as their study site an unusually pristine alpine grassland called Guassa in the remote Menz Highlands inhabited by what is believed to be one of the world's largest remaining gelada poulations. Since November 2005, Fashing and Nguyen have spent 10 months at Guassa habituating the geladas to their presence, learning to recognize, and name more than 100 individuals, and initiating studies of the geladas' feeding ecology, movement patterns, and reproductive behavior. The data resulting from these studies will be critical to understanding the conservation needs of geladas at Guassa.

One factor that has long helped ensure the survival of geladas at Guassa is the unique community conservation scheme known as the Qero system instituted by local elders more than 300 years ago. The Qero system was designed to preserve Guassa for future generations by forbidding construction of houses on the grassland and allowing harvesting of grass for thatch roofing, basketry, and other purposes during only one month every three years. While primarily focused on ensuring sustainable use of the grassland by humans, the Qero system has had the added benefit of conserving Guassa for its animal inhabitants, including the gelada and the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). The fact that Guassa has a history of conservation matched in length by few locations anywhere in the world makes it an especially exciting place to be conducting research on geladas.

Due to their striking appearance and large body size, geladas represent an important flagship species for conservation not only at Guassa but for the rapidly shrinking Ethiopian Highlands' ecosystem as a whole. In supporting Dr. Fashing's research and conservation efforts in Ethiopia, the Pittsburgh Zoo is hopeful that geladas and the Highland ecosystem they call home will have a place in the future of Africa.

To read more about Dr. Fashing's study of the geladas, click here.

(Photos by Dr. Peter Fashing and Dr. Nga Nguyen)