Department of Paraclinical Sciences, University of Pretoria

Primates and diabetes

Having a taste of the good life…

Primates are intelligent, adaptive and opportunistic that become notoriously well known to local residents and tourists for their skilled and aggressive raiding capabilities in picnic areas, houses and even when breaking-and-entering cars.  In fact, once baboons, confined by loss of natural habitat in an urban environment, have had a taste of the “good life” (the refined carbohydrate-rich Western diet), they become hooked and will do just about anything to satisfy their cravings. 

Most primates are highly intelligent. They learn very quickly and, in some respects, can be extremely sly. To go that far, they may be compared to naughty children, doing anything in their power to obtain the food they so crave. Some researchers have compared this craving to being addicted to drugs! In the Cape Peninsula, baboons primarily raid the suburb’s dust bins, but has also resorted into breaking into people’s homes. From observing their human counterparts, some have even mastered opening car doors and home security gates. Once inside a house, they sow havoc, destroying whatever barrier may prevent them from satisfying their craving. Frequent human-baboon interaction also occurs. 

Many altercations have left humans traumatised, especially as baboons have some of the longest canine teeth for their size (some teeth had a length of 45mm). Although the males can weigh between 30 and 35 kg, they are physically very strong and does not shy away from attacking humans. Various interventions have been put in place to prevent baboons from getting hold of these food stuffs. But, they learn quickly and methods of keeping the animals at bay is dwindling. 

Another factor that is exposing these animals to this type of food is human neglect and some deliberately feeding these animals for entertainment purposes.

Are primates at risk of insulin resistance?

Observations of baboons in the Cape Peninsula within the City of Cape Town have hinted that some individuals may in fact be suffering the consequences of poor diet, just as humans are. Baboon monitors (humans that act as baboon police) have even gone as far as to report that some of these regular raiders are becoming overweight and lethargic, and some showing signs of hair- and teeth-loss.

A study conducted in 2012 have also shown that some baboons may have been exposed to viruses that can potentially infect humans (e.g. hepatitis A). Nevertheless, apart from the physical symptoms observed, these baboons that are consuming processed foods high in sugar and fat may also run the risk of developing insulin resistance and type II diabetes.

What are we doing?

This project is investigating whether Cape Towns’ urban baboons are (unknowingly) eating their way towards developing insulin resistance and type II diabetes. We are using various techniques, including blood and skeletal muscle, that can provide semi-quantitive data on the level of insulin resistance. Our aim is to use this data to educate the public on why feeding wild animals have serious consequences. Additionally, we hope that this research would also provide clues to better understand insulin resistance in humans and how to combat this dreadful disease.


Dorothy Breed (University of Cape Town)

Cecile Reed (University of Cape Town)

Justin O’Riain (University of Cape Town)

Past students on this project

David Leith (Honours, 2013)

Julia van Velden (Honours, 2013)

Jason Lovett (Honours, 2013)

Buhlebethu Mpofu (Honours, 2015)