Monkey business: all about Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques

monkey sitting on hill in Gibraltar
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Monkey business: all about Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques

Undoubtedly among Gibraltar’s most popular tourist attractions, its Barbary macaques are commonly found in North Africa, but their presence here is believed to date back to when the British garrison was established in the territory and when it’s presumed, therefore they were imported; inevitably finding the rough limestone cliffs and scrub vegetation a congenial habitat.

In fact, many legends have grown up around them; one being that they travelled from their native Morocco via a subterranean tunnel starting at St Michael’s Cave leading down underneath the Strait of Gibraltar. Romantic it may be but it endures to this day! And, another legend claims that, should the macaques ever disappear, the British will leave Gibraltar.

feeding monkey

Indeed, during the Second World War, natural causes diminished the macaque numbers alarmingly yet, fortunately, then British PM Sir Winston Churchill took a personal interest and additional macaques were imported from Morocco. Today, in addition to the pack that’s resident at Apes’ Den, there are other packs living wild on the steep slopes of the Rock, which always popular, as you can well imagine, with visitors staying at accommodation in the territory and at hotels near Gibraltar.

Primarily because the human population of Gibraltar wants these marvellous monkeys to remain living as they are, in a semi-wild state, it’s strongly advised for those visiting our territory (whether enjoying Gibraltar holiday packages or any sort of trip) not to get too close, feed or touch them. So, by all means take photographs of our simian ‘friends’, but please allow remember to allow them their natural, free way of life – for their benefit and the enjoyment of all.

Good practice when near Barbary macaques

  • Don’t touch them – macaques are wild animals, albeit ones used to people, yet they’re certainly not tame; no matter how docile they might appear, casually sat on a wall, they’re not to be thought of as you would a pet and cannot be expected to think on human in specific, individual terms (to approach a macaque or, vice versa, is effectively to approach a total stranger; never forget this)

  • Don’t feed them – apart from it being illegal (and unnatural foods being bad for them), hand-feeding has long-term negative consequences for macaques

  • Conflict of interest – those that go to see macaques are generally fascinated by them and take pictures and/ or interact with them, but macaques don’t necessarily enjoy affection and yet, to their credit, have learnt to be tolerant of people… in order to stand a chance of obtaining treats, so always bear this mind!

  • Food and bags – beware, macaques associate bags with food, so avoid taking bags when going specifically to see them; should you encounter macaques when you have food keep your food/ bag, be assertive or, if you can’t be, move away

  • Recognise their warning signals – when threatened, the macaques will give a warning gesture which resembles a pouted mouth, the round mouth threat (RMT) in which the macaque looks directly at the offending party with raised eyebrows to gain your attention. The gesture, which incidentally, is usually silent, but for the occasional ‘pant’ means ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ with the macaque able to intensify the tone of the threat by leaning into the offender if they deem it necessary

  • Give them space – finally, don’t get too close and never get between an adult and their baby.