A Warning For World Cup Fans: Don't Feed The Baboons

BY DIANE TOOMEY
http://www.flickr.com/photos/wbur/sets/72157624230787954/

When sports fans show up in Cape Town, South Africa this week for the World Cup, they’ll be warned about thieves, who will break into their cars, reach through open windows and possibly confront them on the road.  And no matter what, those tourists will be told, never, ever feed them. That’s because the thieves in question are wild baboons, who roam the Cape Town area. These primates have learned to associate humans with tasty snacks, and they have become relentless in their pursuit of people food.

In the suburb of Glencairn, baboon country is ruled by Georgie.  He's the alpha male who rules a troop of about three dozen baboons, who roam the hills here. Spelo Mahnelee is a tour guide, who always makes sure to call out to the 100-pound animal to get his okay to come closer.

Georgie stares down from his perch on a rock above the tourists.

"He’s got an amazingly large head. Which is one of the characteristics of George," said Jenny Trethowan, who heads up the organization that runs these tours. It’s called Baboon Matters.

"You can see George gazing around with the bright blue sky behind him, gazing over his domain," Trethowan said. "At this time of day, everyone is resting. So around us we can see lots of little family groups resting asleep or grooming each other."

Trethowan used to be, as she puts it, just a housewife. But 20 years ago, she became a baboon activist when a troupe of baboons was killed after one too many encounters with local suburbanites. She formed her organization, and hired men from nearby townships to act as guards, who herd baboons away from town. The system worked, but Trethowan says she wanted to do more. She wanted people to see a kinder, gentler baboon, up close.

But these animals can be aggressive, even dangerous, when it comes to snatching food from your car, your house or your hand. Tourists are warned to carry nothing edible, not even gum.

"There’s some sitting in the tree there," said Mahnelee. "We’re going to go up to where they are."

Farther up the hill there's a scene that resembles the amputee ward in a war hospital.

"This is one we call Penelope," said Mahnelee. "The one that is missing a hand."

Mahnelee says those limbs were damaged beyond repair by gun shots.

"This one there, she’s one of the pregnant females we have," he continued. "She’s missing a hand. There’s Ellie there. She’s the one that is missing a leg."

It is illegal to kill baboons, but that doesn't stop some people, who Trethowan says, have a shoot-on-sight policy, regardless of whether the baboon is a threat. And if you speak Afrikaans in front of these animals, they’ll run. That’s the language spoken in a nearby community where dogs have been sent to attack baboons.

Up the slope, a troop sits under small trees and bushes, out of the midday-sun. But a grunting noise is a sign that not everyone is sleeping.

"That is the copulation noise," said Trethowan. "The females always make that noise when they finish copulating.  It lets the others know who is mating, and the males can then keep an eye out to see that their females are not mating with someone else."

We’re surrounded by lounging baboons. Off to one side, a young male, his long canine teeth just starting to grow in, gives an infant what can only be described as a hug. Another baboon yawns.

It’s a peaceful little family moment, until a fight breaks out between a number of baboons.

"A spat broke out between the boys," said Trethowan.  "I’m not sure what set it off, and as you can see it was over and done with quickly. The noise you heard afterward was  basically everyone checking in with each other to see where everyone is and what happened.  But you can see some already going back to bed. No grudges. It’s over quickly and everyone settles down."

And as the start of the World Cup approaches, Cape Town is hoping the thousands of soccer fans who will soon be flooding into the city to root for their home teams will be as well behaved.

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