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Baboons' taste buds spur whole new crop in South Africa

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It was an annual mystery that baffled fruit farmer Alwyn van der Merwe.

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Each June, when his oranges began ripening, a troop of baboons would descend from the mountains around Citrusdal in the Western Cape and target one particular tree among thousands, stripping it of all its oranges.

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Year after year it happened until Mr. van der Merwe decided to inspect the lone tree and discovered that it was a different variety from the others, sweeter and ripening three weeks earlier. “We couldn’t believe it. The one tree was different from the thousands of others, and the baboons knew it,” he says.

Samples of the tree were sent to be tested by the Citrus Growers Association, which confirmed it was a new variety of Mineola orange. Van der Merwe grafted shoots from the tree onto standard stocks. They have been cultivated and grown in CGA greenhouses.

Van der Merwe, who is production director at ALG Estates, 130 miles north of Cape Town, says the company produces nearly 50,000 tons of oranges from 1,200 acres on five farms for both domestic and overseas markets. He says the new cultivar, by ripening earlier, will extend their growing season.

“It hasn’t got a name, and they said we could choose it – maybe we should call it the ‘baboon Mineola,’ ” he says.