In 1998, a young American biologist named Justin Brashares, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, went to Ghana to research antelope behavior. But, as he hiked the West African forests and savannahs, he didn’t see many antelope. He also didn’t see many hippos, leopards, duikers, or lions. What he did see were large, aggressive troops of olive baboons. They had recently begun to raid maize crops and steal chickens, causing such serious and persistent damage that many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.
How had baboons gained influence over the education of Ghanaian children? In search of an answer, Brashares dug into the fantastically detailed records of wildlife populations and hunting activity that Ghana has kept since its days as a British colony. He found that as populations of large mammal species had declined in the country’s national parks over the decades, baboon populations had expanded into the newly predator-free habitat. Hunting intensified by human population growth was one reason for the over-all declines, but the mammal numbers didn’t follow a straight line toward extinction: they rose, then fell, then rose again.
Brashares asked Ghanaian farmers about the pattern. “Oh, it’s the fish,” he remembers them saying dismissively. Poor fishing on the Atlantic coast, they told Brashares, drove more people into the forest to hunt for bushmeat. More hunting meant fewer large mammals, more olive baboons—and, eventually, more kids kept home from school. Brashares’ analysis of data collected by researchers from his lab and elsewhere showed that, in 2009, sixty-five per cent of school-age children in sixty-four baboon-affected villages were withdrawn from school for at least one month, and many for much longer than that.