Baboons get bad press: the price they pay, one has to suppose, for not being as cute as chimps - or having a human like Jane Goodall for a champion. They're more dog-faced than baby-faced, they have big teeth and a reputation for aggression. True, you wouldn't want to tangle with a troop of baboons - an adult male baboon can weigh 30kg or more and they've been known to inflict serious injury on unwary predators including leopards - but in encounters with humans they almost invariably come off second best.

I'm most familiar with the Chacma baboons of Southern Africa, papio ursinus: reviled as vermin and shot at or poisoned by farmers, experimented upon in research laboratories, more or less ignored by tourists and environmentalists because they seem so ugly and so common, the butt of jokes… did you ever see that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets his hand stuck in a vending machine because he won't let go of the can? When I was a kid they used to tell that story about baboons: the best way to trap a baboon, I learned, is to cut a hole in a pumpkin just big enough for a baboon hand, but not big enough for a baboon hand full of pumpkin seeds. They're that dumb.

Last year there was a proposal to slaughter them and can their meat for export.

Most people encounter baboons only in the parks and on the fringes of the roads that slice through wild places: there are always signs saying "Don't feed the baboons", but someone always does. Eventually poor Baviaan, so accustomed to being fed by humans that he becomes a pest, frightens some tourists by banging on their car too insistently and someone comes to shoot him. So it goes.

Actually baboons are among the brightest of the primates and the social organisation of a baboon troop is complex, subtle, multi-layered and fascinating. They fight with each other a little, they defend each other against enemies, they forage together, they look after their young, they form lifelong friendships… they spend a lot of time grooming each other. Young males leave their birth troops to seek their fortunes (and stir the gene pool a bit); the females tend to stay at home. They all make a lot of noise.

The best known story of a human-baboon relationship is that of James Wide, the crippled railway signalman of Uitenhage, and his companion Jack. I read it in Eve Palmer's classic book of the Karoo The Plains of Camdeboo: Jack pumped and carried water, fetched wood, helped with the house and garden, locked up every morning, pushed and pulled the trolley Wide used to get around and helped him with his duties. Once when Wide was ill Jack managed all the signalling himself, under supervision. They were together for nine years before Jack died in 1890, "the pride of the district".

That was one baboon; not enough to change the (undeserved) reputation of the rest of his family. Their human cousins are exterminating them at a steady pace. There are still plenty of baboons, of course, hordes of 'em; but there were hordes of just about everything, once.