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Baboons: The wine connoisseurs of the animal kingdom

March 23, 2010 |  5:14 pm

Baboons <3 wine

JOHANNESBURG — Baboons, it seems, prefer Pinot Noir. They also like a nice Chardonnay.

Largely undeterred by electric fences, hundreds of wild baboons in South Africa's prized wine country are finding the vineyards of succulent ripe grapes to be an "absolute bonanza," said Justin O'Riain of the University of Cape Town.

Winemakers have resorted to using noisemakers and rubber snakes to try to drive the baboons off during harvest season.

"The poor baboons are driven to distraction," said O'Riain, who works in the university's Baboon Research Unit.

"As far as baboons are concerned, the combination of starch and sugar is very attractive, and that's your basic grape," he said.

Growers say the picky primates are partial to sweet Pinot Noir grapes, adding to the winemakers' woe: Pinot Noir sells for more than the average Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

"They choose the nicest bunches, and you will see the ones they leave on the ground. If you taste them, they are sour," said Francois van Vuuren, farm manager at La Terra de Luc vineyards, 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Cape Town. "They eat the sweetest ones and leave the rest."

Baboons <3 wine

Baboons have raided South Africa's vineyards in the past, but farmers say this year is worse than previous ones because the primates have lost their usual foraging areas because of wildfires and ongoing expansion of grape-growing areas.

Out of a 12-ton harvest, 1,100 to 1,300 pounds (500 to 600 kilograms) go to waste at La Terra de Luc because of the baboons.

In the Constantia wine-producing area alone, up to $34,800 worth of the crop has been lost annually in previous years, according to the Baboon Research Unit.

One farm, La Petite Ferme, was hit particularly hard after fires in the Franschhoek wine-producing region devastated large swaths of land, burning the baboons' normal foraging areas. The primates then descended on its Chardonnay crop, eating or destroying up to three tons of grapes.

La Petite Ferme usually produces 12 to 15 barrels of Chardonnay a year but this season managed to produce only three, said farm manager Mark Dendy-Young.

"It was bad timing," Dendy-Young said.

Baboons <3 wine

Sometimes the baboons even get an alcohol kick by feasting on discarded grape skins that have fermented in the sun. After gobbling up the skins, the animals stumble around before sleeping it off in a shady spot.

During harvest season from January to March, winemakers put up serious front-line defenses. Some try to scare off the baboons by blowing into horns called vuvuzelas that are often used by South Africa's soccer fans.

Electric fencing often doesn't work because baboons can dig under it or swing above it from trees to get to the vineyards, O'Riain said. They also test the fence for weak spots. If they're shocked, they'll scream, but they'll probably return the next day, he said.

Like other farm managers, Van Vuuren has noticed that the baboons follow a pattern, usually arriving about 10 a.m.

"Every day, they come at the same time.... The guys chase the baboons, blowing vuvuzelas, and they chase them back up the mountain. But sometimes they only move a few meters and then they sit there, looking at you."

Baboons <3 wine

Sakkie Lourens, manager of Cabriere farm, uses rubber snakes to scare the baboons away.

"I put them all over where the vines are, and since then, I haven't seen a single baboon," he said.

Ryno Reyneke of the Cape Chamonix farm said the attacks peak at harvest time. He hires baboon monitors to scare the animals away with noise. Some farmers also plant grapes outside their fence line, a sacrificial offering that reduces the number of primate trespassers.

The Baboon Research Unit is pioneering a high-tech approach in which a collar with a sensor is placed on a member of a baboon troop. When the collar passes a particular point, an "incoming baboon" text message is sent to a cellphone, and someone races to the fence to defend the vineyard.

O'Riain doesn't think the problem will go away because vineyards are expanding into the lower slopes of the mountains, the baboons' traditional foraging grounds.

"Where there's a mountain, there's a baboon," O'Riain said. "As we take up more and more of their land, the conflict increases."

Baboon runs past a vineyard

-- Associated Press

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First photo: A baboon eats grapes at the Constantia Uitsig wine estate in the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Second photo: Baboons look for grapes at Constantia Uitsig. Third photo: Baboons run past a vineyard. Fourth photo: A baboon looks for grapes. Fifth photo: A baboon runs past a vineyard. All photos by Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press

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