South African baboon rescuer dies in fire

JON GAMBRELL Associated Press Published:

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Conservationist Rita Miljo, who cared for and reintroduced packs of baboons back into the wilds of South Africa, died in a fire that destroyed much of the headquarters of the sanctuary she built, a sanctuary official said Saturday. She was 81.

Miljo died Friday in the small apartment she kept above the clinic of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation & Education in the bush of Limpopo province, said Karl Pierce, a director with the sanctuary. With her at her death was Bobby, the first battered Chacma baboon she ever rescued and nursed back to health in 1980 after spiriting her away from a national park without a permit. Bobby also died in the fire, along with two other older baboons that stayed in her apartment, Pierce said.

The fire broke out around 8 p.m. Friday after volunteers and workers left the center for the evening, Pierce said. No one else was injured in the blaze, which consumed the clinic, offices and a house on the property, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Johannesburg. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

While Miljo no longer ran day-to-day operations of the center, which cares for more than 400 baboons, she remained a constant presence and a figurehead for the organization she founded in 1989.

"Everybody's still in shock about this," Pierce said.

Born in Germany in 1931, Miljo came to South Africa in the 1950s. In a 2008 article about her in The Washington Post Magazine, Miljo said helping baboons taught her "why people behave the way they do."

"Chimpanzees can be deceitful, just like humans, whereas baboons haven't learned that yet," she said at the time. "So what you learn from the baboons is the truth about yourself. Chimpanzees have already learned to find beautiful little excuses for their behavior."

In South Africa, baboons have a troublesome reputation. In Cape Town, baboons remain known for raiding cars and frightening tourists. Baboons are a protected species under South African legislation but their aggressive pursuits of food have led to conflicts with residents.

Miljo nursed orphaned and injured baboons back to health, then pioneered ways of reintroducing whole troops of cared-for baboons back into the wild, her center said. In 1994, the center successfully released ten hand-reared baboons back into the wild. A year later, 70 percent had survived and integrated back into the wild population, the center said, a success as many thought the human-cared-for baboons wouldn't be able to adjust.

Miljo is survived by a brother who lives in Botswana, Pierce said. Her first husband, Lothar Simon, and her 17-year-old daughter died in 1972 in plane crash.

Despite personal tragedies in her own life, she remained focused on her work to help sick and injured baboons. When asked in 2008 where the body of one of the baboons she sheltered would be buried, Miljo offered a quick answer.

"I remember where each one is and that's where I'm going to be buried, too," she said.

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Online:

Centre for Animal Rehabilitation & Education: http://www.primatecare.org.za/

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://twitter.com/jongambrellap .