/ 25 November 2009

Furry felons rob SA tourists

Visitors to South Africa’s premier holiday destination who are worried about becoming victims of the country’s high crime rate could find themselves instead robbed by a more furry kind of felon: baboons.

The cheeky primates have learned how to open car doors and jump through windows in pursuit of sandwiches and snacks.

City officials are battling to control the increasingly aggressive troupes and there are fears the problem will worsen with the influx of visitors to Cape Town during the Soccer World Cup next year.

On Tuesday, a troupe of 29 baboons raided four cars outside Simon’s Town. A baboon dubbed ”Fred,” the leader of the group, opened unlocked doors and jumped through windows in search of food.

He ransacked a bag in the back seat of a red car as a couple panicked about their passports. A girl screamed nearby as a baboon hopped into her car through a back window. Others climbed on car roofs and hoods, looking for ways inside.

Many of those who stopped to watch the raid had their own cars broken into by other baboons.

”We spend the whole day basically rescuing tourists,” said Mark Duffels, a volunteer who monitors the baboons in an effort to keep
them at bay.

There are about 420 baboons in 17 troupes that roam the city’s outskirts, especially the popular scenic sites along the coast.

Baboons are a protected species under South African legislation but their persistent pursuit of food has led to conflict with residents.

The baboons associate humans and cars with food although people are strongly discouraged from feeding the animals.

But Justin O’ Riain, head of the baboon research unit at the University of Cape Town, fears that the influx of visitors next year will only feed the primates’ taste for human foods even more.

”Tourism is going to go through the roof, and this equals exposure to naive people and rich pickings,” he said. ”People who stop the car, they’re going to get raided.”

Concerned Simon’s Town residents asked Monday for a crossing gate to be put up on the road that leads to the nearby Cape of Good Hope nature reserve.

Cars would be stopped before they enter baboon territory and given a brochure in their native language explaining why they should stay in their cars, lock their doors and close their windows if they see baboons.

”We’re so anxious about tourists who can’t read or understand English. It puts them at risk,” said Liz Hardman, who is leading the campaign. ”The perception is that the baboons are harmless and they’re not. They’re wild animals.” – Sapa-AP