By Brian Hayward

Concern is mounting after two recent baboon attacks left a four-year-old Cape Town boy and a 42-year-old Eastern Cape man critically injured.

Experts have warned that urban development is increasingly encroaching on the natural habitat of baboons and that a lack of planning around baboons and their habits is causing an increase in the number of confrontations with humans.

In one incident, Alexandria resident Mtimkulu Manseli, 42, was attacked while walking home after visiting his brother, who lives nearby.

Manseli, who is still recovering at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth two weeks after the horrific attack, was returning home to Kwanonqebela township when he was attacked by a lone baboon.

"It was about 8.30pm and out of the blue the baboon jumped out of the bush and tried to get at my neck," said a still shaken Manseli.

As the baboon was attacking him, a truck drove up and frightened it away. The driver then called for an ambulance. Manseli's forearms were ripped to the bone from trying to fend off the vicious animal.

One of the baboon's teeth was later removed from Manseli's arm during surgery.

Dr Elmarie Matthews, who assisted in operating on Manseli, said the tissue damage was immense. "I've never seen anything like that before. It was quite a gruesome injury," she said.

In the most recent incident, a baboon attacked a four-year-old boy in Kogel Bay near Gordon's Bay last weekend, seriously injuring him.

Luciano Adams apparently became caught up in a fight between two male baboons who were foraging for food from dustbins at a picnic spot.

Internationally renowned primatologist David Gaynor said places where conflict with baboons arose tended to be in areas where they were fed.

Based in Nieu-Bethesda, where he conducts his research and environmental consulting, Gaynor said many of the problems with baboons were to do with the primates rummaging for food at refuse dumps which were usually close to homes, or at game lodges where the baboons tended to pull the thatch out of the lodge roofs.

"Many of the problems are a result of urbanisation. As a result of this the baboon population had been declining, mainly due to the culling of male baboons," Gaynor said.

Johannesburg-based Karen Wentworth, South African representative of the International Primate and Exotic Animal Association, said the problems people were experiencing with baboons were self-inflicted. "A lot of the problems come from people feeding the primates.

They (primates) will take food wherever they can get it, and will go back to that place for more," she said.

"They become less afraid of humans and it lessens their wildness, which is when they cause problems."

Cape Nature baboon management team head Melikhaya Pantsi said it was important for people to be cautious when dealing with baboons.

"It is very rare that a baboon would attack a human being. They might jump on you to grab what they think is food, but they are generally not aggressive," he said.

But Graeme Young, conservationist at the Ndlambe conservation department in Port Alfred, said it was not unheard of for baboons to attack humans without provocation.

Sometimes older males were kicked out of their troop and became aggressive towards humans as they scavenged for food on their own, he said.

"We've had reports of an old male baboon that has spent up to three weeks a year disturbing residents in Port Alfred - running through gardens and rummaging through rubbish bins."

Jenny Trethowan, of Cape Town-based baboon monitoring project Baboon Matters, said attacks on humans were usually not the fault of the baboon.

"When you unpack the attack, usually the person has done something wrong."

Trethowan warned that the "exponential rate of urbanisation" was leading to urban development encroaching on the natural habitat of the baboons.

"Unless people make an effort to make their homes unattractive to baboons, we will encounter problems," she said.

This meant not having open refuse bins or plant matter which might be food for the baboons.