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Fred the baboon a dodgy World Cup host

By unknown | May 05, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

FRED, a well-built seasoned house burglar and mugger, ambles down the row of parked cars at a scenic Cape Town look-out before finding an unlocked door and slipping onto the back seat.

A startled tourist leaps out. But Fred, a brazen alpha male baboon, slouches past delighted onlookers with empty-handed indifference after an unsuccessful food rummage.

Getting baboon-jacked is a daily routine for drivers to Cape Point, Africa's southernmost tip, with experts warning of increased face-offs as World Cup fans descend on South Africa next month.

"Every day, it happens," said Mark Duffell, leader of a team that tracks Fred's 26 member troop as they forage between Cape Point and the outskirts of the picturesque Simon's Town naval base and penguin colony.

A machismo-fuelled football fan taking on Fred is baboon expert Justin O'Riain's worst fear. He recently saw the alpha male climb into a car with five adult males and leap onto a female tourist's back.

"Their behaviour is outrageous. I don't think he's out to kill anyone. But if we leave it as is now, there will be people injured and traumatised during the World Cup," the baboon research unit head at the University of Cape Town said.

With encroaching urbanisation, under-siege Cape Town residents in baboon areas have long battled raids and even the accidental pushing of an elderly man to his death.

For the apes, it's simple logic: half a loaf of raided brown bread is nutritionally equal to a full day's foraging, leaving more time for far-favoured socialising and mating.

"They're extremely intelligent," said Linden Rhoda of the Nature Conservation Corporation which has managed the city's troops since August with a team of 60 monitors.

The encounters can be violent - Fred has bitten three tourists.

"Baboons must learn again that people are not friends. They're too used to people," Rhoda said.

"That natural fear that baboons had is gone and that's why we are having such big problems on the peninsula."

Shouts and whistles are used, but in tougher baboonhoods like Simon's Town, whips are cracked and crackers set off to move apes back. There are no female monitors as the baboons have proven not to listen to women, he said.

Baboons do not eat passports or money but visitors need to stand back if targeted, said Duffell.

They are also not known to attack people willingly but will fight - using canine teeth that are longer than a lion's - for raided food, to protect their young or if trapped.

"The city council spends a fortune on putting signs up - 90 percent of this happens right underneath these signs," said Duffell, as Fred wandered up the rows of cars, trailed by his favourite son Michael Jackson.

"You don't get out of your car at a lion park, do you?" Cape Town authorities acknowledge there will be World Cup incidents but are confident of their controls and further public awareness, saying baboon hotline calls had dropped by 80%.

"I don't think there is going to be any significant disruption to tourists that are visiting Cape Town," said the city's Stephen Granger.

"We haven't seen baboons invading the Cape Town Stadium yet." But O'Riain, citing a 19-month-old toddler who is seeing a psychologist after an encounter with Fred, would like systems to be beefed up, including on the road to Cape Point.

"There's no point waiting for the disaster. This has got to stop now and it is very serious. It's reached boiling point," O'Riain said. - Sapa-AFP


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