Gelada Baboons, or Bleeding Heart Monkeys as they are also known (due to the red marking on their chest) aren’t true baboons. They’re baboon-like primates, but of their own genus (Theropithecus).
Fossil evidence has shown that various species of the Theropithecus genus once spanned the African continent and even extended into Asia and Europe. The gelada are the sole survivors of the Theropithecus line, and their range is currently limited to the Ethiopian highlands. The largest remnant population is here, in the Simien Mountains.
If you’re in the region (you might be visiting Gondar for instance) then I highly recommend popping into the Simien Mountains to meet the geladas.
While I’ve been told they can be unfriendly and sometimes even attack people, our guide assured us that the gelada’s antagonism towards humans is limited to those with dark skin – this occurs, apparently, because local farmers and shepherds throw rocks at the gelada to scare them away from their pastures. Geladas, our guide attests, are perfectly placid around those with pale skin.
I don’t know how accurate this statement is, but I can confirm the gelada took no offence to my friend and I (both pale skinned males), and were in general congenial and inquisitive. Our guide kept his distance.
Still, the gelada can be a little intimidating at first, especially the alpha males, who stride towards you with a cocky arrogance that suggests hostility.
And if these were African baboons, then your apprehension would be valid, and you’d be wise to keep your distance. African baboons are opportunistic eaters; they’re aggressive and unpredictable.
Gelada, however, are graminivorous – meaning they eat grass, in particular grass seed – and are thus relatively docile. They are the only graminivorous primates.
After striding boldly towards you the alpha male will stop, squat on its haunches, and daintily pluck at the grass like an expert berry picker.
It is also somewhat difficult to feel threatened by an animal with an 80s perm hairdo.
Gelada are a high altitude species (residing in elevations of 1,800 metres to 4,400 metres) and live in communities of 30 to 300 individuals. They forage on the high plateau grasslands during the day, and retire to the steep cliff edges during the night, where they are safe from predators.
Being an alpine species isn’t a prudent long-term strategy in climate-change-affected Africa, where alpine areas are reducing in size year on year. There is fear that the gentle gelada, unless they somehow manage to adapt to the changing conditions, will become yet another victim of climate change.
The best place to organise a tour into the Simien Mountains is in Gondar, Ethiopia.
At the time of my visit (October 2015) a permit was required to enter Simien Mountains National Park; you also needed a full-time guide and a personal security guard (the Simiens are quite close to the troubled Eritrean border).
Read more on Simien National Park in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.