Law catches up with John Wayne, Cape Town's celebrity baboon

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The Independent Online

He's been spotted on top of Table Mountain, been a stowaway on board a trawler and visited an upmarket shopping centre. Meet Cape Town's latest celebrity: John Wayne, a 10-year-old baboon.

The primate has achieved celebrity status in South Africa's Mother City, with residents, police, vets and experts from the city's baboon management team hot on his trail, and journalists and television crews following the chase.

But then, after a whirlwind tour of some of Cape Town's wealthiest southern suburbs, he was cornered on a school roof and shot with a tranquiliser dart. His escapes had finally come to an end.

But John Wayne's monkeying around has highlighted the deep divisions within the city towards one of man's closest relatives.

There are around 350 chacma baboons in 13 troops on the Cape Peninsula, where they have lived for more than a million years. Because of growing development, a number of animals walk down from the mountains – where they usually feed on up to 200 varieties of berries, plants and leaves – to forage in bins and houses. That has angered some homeowners, who resort to shooting or poisoning the baboons that can reach weights of up to 47kg (103lb). On average 15 a year are killed.

One resident who is fed up is Joan Laing, 49, chairwoman of the her local Baboon-free Neighbourhood Action Group. She has lived in Welcome Glen for five years and been "visited" by the animals 14 times.

"They come into the house, take what they want and make a dreadful mess. They ransack and empty everything," she said. "They're dangerous. They bite people and have torn pets apart with their sharp teeth. They are wild animals and should be in the mountains, not coming into houses. I just hope they don't end up killing someone."

But others dispute this portrait of the baboons, saying that people's hostility stems from fear and ignorance. Jenni Trethowan, 48, has been running Baboon Matters for almost 20 years, ever since a troop was eliminated near her Cape Peninsula home. She cares for the animals and has organised extensive education programmes for residents, advising them not to leave out food or bins and make houses more "baboon-proof" by installing window bars.

Baboon Matters also set up the Baboon Management Team – which comprises the council, South African National Parks and Cape Nature Conservation and local homeowners – and organised monitors to keep track of the troops.

"I'm a houseowner and the baboons have caused thousands of rands of damage but I don't want to hurt them," said Ms Trethowan. "We both live here and we need to live together but they do polarise opinion. Residents have to work collectively not to encourage baboons to come to our houses. They'll always go for easy food instead of spending hours foraging for it in the mountains."

John Wayne has been released near Cape Point after he was given a clean bill of health. And for those mourning the loss of the baboon road show, all is not lost. "He walked out quite arrogantly without even a glance back," said Allan Perrins from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I don't think this will be the last we hear of John Wayne."