Rita Miljo, who reintroduced packs of baboons into the wilds of south-eastern Africa, died in the fire which destroyed much of the headquarters of the sanctuary she built, an official said.
Karl Pierce, a director with the sanctuary said the 81-year-old died in the small apartment she kept above the clinic of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education in the bush of Limpopo province, about 250 miles northeast of Johannesburg.
According to Pierce, Bobby, the first battered Chacma baboon Miljo rescued and nursed back to health in 1980 was with her and also died in the fire, along with two other older baboons that stayed in her apartment.
The fire broke out around 8 pm, after all workers and volunteers had left the center for the day. No one else was injured in the blaze, which consumed the clinic, offices and a house on the property. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
While Ms 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.
This dedicated conservationist had an amazing life. From Opposing Views:
Rita Miljo was born in Germany in 1931 and 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,” she told the Post.
Miljo nursed orphaned and injured baboons back to health, then developed humane methods of reintroducing entire packs of baboons back into the wild, the Centre said.
In 1994, the Centre successfully released ten hand-raised baboons back into the wild. A year later, 70% had survived and integrated back into the wild population, the Centre said proudly– a success that amazed many who thought the human-cared-for baboons wouldn’t be able to adjust.
In South Africa, baboons are often regarded as vermin. In Cape Town, for instance, baboons remain known for raiding cars and frightening tourists. Baboons are a protected species under South African legislation but their aggressive pursuits of food and human interference have led to conflicts with residents.
Miljo, however, remained devoted to helping sick and injured baboons, in spite of several personal tragedies in her life, including the death of her first husband and 17-year-old daughter in a plane crash in 1972.
Where would the conservation of wild animals be without the likes of Rita Miljo and Jane Goodall?
Rest in Peace, Ms. Miljo; we mourn your passing.
You can see video footage of Rita Miljo, shot five years ago, here:
Photo Credit: Attie Gerber