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August 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM
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A population explosion of baboons at a Uruguayan zoo has their keepers worried that the 130 increasingly aggressive animals will forcibly resist being moved to a larger enclosure.

For years the troop of Hamadrya baboons -- a species Old World monkeys native to the Horn of Africa and Yemen -- has lived in a domed metal cage built for birds of prey at the Parque Lecocq, a reserve northwest of Montevideo.

The 2,300 square meter cage used to have grass, palm trees and a lake with aquatic plants. "It was the most adequate environment, because there the species could develop socially," said Parque Lecocq director Eduardo Tavares.

The enormous cage made it difficult for the zookeepers to control the population, Tavares said, so the animals were allowed to do "what nature called them to do."

As the population grew, the animals destroyed all plant life inside the cage.

"They even finished with the grass, and are now eating the roots. The vegetation died off, and what is left is an environment that looks like their semi-desert homeland," Tavares said.

Up to 60 baboons is plenty for the zoo, he said. "That would guarantee the colony's viability and would save us money on food," he told AFP.

In the current oversized colony, the baboons become "much more aggressive, there can be fights, there is competition for the females," Tavares said.

The baboons are peaceful when zoo workers enter the cage for routine cleanups and feeding, but "their aggressive nature emerges when one of them is captured, or when we try to take out one that has died," said Tavares.

"They join and attack as a whole troop. It's very dangerous."

The Parque Lecocq is nearing completion of an open-air enclosure for the baboons six times larger than the cage that will include rooms where zoo keepers can check the health of each animal -- which will be tagged with a microchip -- and carry out birth control procedures.

The challenge, however, will be moving the baboons to their new home. "No one in the world has ever moved such a large number of these monkeys," Tavares said.



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