Although our macaques are habituated to humans it is a common misconception that they are tame. Whilst at times they might come across as cute and cuddly, one should never attempt to stroke them or indeed invade the animal’s individual space.
Life expectancy of the Barbary Macaque is around 20-25 years with females tending to live longer than males. In Gibraltar owing to the fact that macaques are provisioned with fruit and vegetables and have no natural predators, they tend to surpass this age.
One of the macaques’ favourite pastimes is grooming. You will get to observe this when the macaques are relaxed and / or visitors do not intrude on them. This social interaction has a short-term hygienic function in which mainly flakes of skin and other organic matter are meticulously combed for. Grooming also has a long-term social significance whereby macaques reinforce their social bonds.
The Barbary Macaque or Macaca Sylvanus, is one of around 25 recognised species of macaques. All other species live in and around Asia, whilst the Barbary Macaque is the only macaque native to Africa, specifically the Middle Atlas Mountains and the Rif Valley in North Africa.
Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques are synonymous with ‘The Rock’ and undoubtedly Gibraltar’s most popular tourist attraction. Although referred to as apes, they are in fact a type of tail less monkey.
Historically, visitors could only see the macaques at ‘Apes Den’ (Queen’s Gate). These days at least 5 of the existing 7 groups can be enjoyed at various points with the Nature Reserve, Upper Rock.
Accessing the Upper Rock via its main entrance by Jews Gate, chances are that the first group of macaques you will come across is as one approaches St Michael’s Cave, either below the firebreak by the southern entrance to Royal Anglian Way (early mornings and late evenings) or by St Michael’s Cabin. When viewing the macaques always remember a conflict of interest exists. Human visitors come in their hundreds to see the macaques and take pictures with them whilst the macaques simply tolerate this in order to try and take advantage of you and dedicate much of their time to snatching bags at the slightest neglect in search of treats. Please see guidelines on viewing the macaques below.
From here on depending if you head down or up you will see the macaques at Apes Den (Queen’s Gate) or Prince Philip’s Arch respectively.
Visitors using the Cable Car will stumble across the Cable Car macaque group no sooner have they arrived at the Top Station. You are strongly recommended to remain vigilant and put all carrier bags within closed handbags before arriving at the Top Station. The Cable Car top terraces are comprised of relatively confined staircases and balconies. The macaques are best viewed more safely in open areas as you leave the premises.
Finally visitors may come across macaques by the Northern side of the Nature Reserve by Princess Caroline’s Battery / Great Siege Tunnels / Moorish Castle area. Please bear in mind that for pedestrians making your way up the Rock via the Moorish Castle, these are likely to be the first macaques you come across so approach with caution.
Barbary Macaques are indigenous to Morocco and Algeria where only about 7,000 remain in the wild and are endangered. The over 200 macaques in Gibraltar are descendants of various importations from North Africa by British troops, the last one during the 1940s. Today the Gibraltar population represents the only free-living monkeys in Europe.
If you see only a few active monkeys on site at first, be patient! Look carefully at the cliff / trees where you will probably spot some more taking shelter in the shade. They spend a great proportion of their day interacting with visitors but remember, they are still semi-wild animals. They need time to rest and take part in other 'monkey activities', free from interference. Try not to call out to them but be patient instead. If you are able to anticipate where they will be moving into, try and head there first as opposed to chase after them. By viewing them in this way you are sure not to disturb them and will get to observe them as naturally as possible.
Even if you see others feeding them or touching them, refrain from doing the same. The welfare of the Barbary Macaques is now in the hands of the Ministry for the Environment who have recently employed Environmental Safety Officers who actively deter visitors from physically interacting with them. The macaques are cared for and provisioned daily by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society. For further information, please visit www.gonhs.org
General Guidelines When Viewing the Macaques:
Do not touch – the macaques remain wild animals, albeit they are used to people. However they are certainly not tame. No matter how docile they might appear casually sat on a wall they are not to be approached as pets! What’s more, even though habituated to people in general they are not familiar with anyone of us at an individual level and so touching them can result in threat displays (explained below) or even being bitten. Think of it like a total stranger coming up to you and making physical contact.
Do not feed – apart from it being illegal and unnatural foods being bad for them, hand feeding has long-term negative consequences on the macaques which tend to lose respect towards people which then only serves for them to gain in stature and aggressiveness towards us.
Conflict of interest – whilst those that go to see the macaques are generally fascinated by them and go to take pictures and / or interact with them, the macaques do not necessarily enjoy our affection but have simply learnt to be tolerant of people in order to stand a chance of obtaining treats. Knowing that the macaques are constantly on the lookout for your food will go a long way towards ensuring your safety. Do not let your guard down – know what the animals are there for!
Food and bags – macaques associate bags with food – be vigilant! Avoid taking bags when going specifically to see them. Simply leave them inside your vehicle if you have travelled in one. Should you encounter macaques when you have food keep your food / bag in front of you where the macaque stands less of a chance of snatching it. Be assertive, if you can’t be, then move away.
Recognise their warning signals – when threatened, the macaques will give a warning gesture which resembles a pouted mouth. This is known as 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 their offending actions so require. If a macaque directs a RMT at you, you should stop whatever annoying action it is that you are doing, whether it is pointing at it, stroking it, staring at it, etc. and step back calmly to give it some space. This will reassure the macaque and it will stop displaying its threat gesture. Failure to do so would mean that the macaque, having pre-warned you will need to resort to lunge or call for back up.
Give them space– do not get too close to them and do not get in-between an adult and a baby. When agitated or stressed by overcrowding or being stared at from close range macaques will start to fidget or scratch (Self-Directed Behaviours) even before they display a RMT. This is your pre-warning signal to stand back. Avoidance is the best strategy.
Announce yourself to them– do not try and sneak up on them – let the macaque come to terms with your intentions before you proceed to approach them. This will prevent startling them.
Avoid staircases and tight spots– macaques will get defensive and you will be putting yourself at risk unnecessarily. If you come across macaques in a tight spot pause to assess the situation then move away if you can.
If they jump / climb on you– The macaques are used to people and the more boisterous juveniles will often approach and sometimes climb onto people. To avoid this wherever possible refrain from leaning onto walls and railings where they can normally be found. Also avoid crouching down next to juveniles. Both these habits are all too inviting to excitable macaques that will generally seize this opportunity. Remember there is no safe way to physically interact with these animals that are capable of scratching and biting if not maliciously, in a playful manner. At best they are dirty.
Brian Gomila studied Primatology at Roehampton University in 2003 / 04. He runs a macaque awareness Facebook page: MonkeyTalkGibraltar where he regularly posts educational articles offering advice on how best to view them. Brian also conducts Gibraltar Heritage Award-winning macaque educational outings. Taking place in the last two hours of daylight wherever possible away from the roadside, the outings provide a welcome alternative to the mainstream tours. You are guaranteed not to leave indifferent and with a new-found admiration towards the macaques.
For more info and contact details visit http://www.visitgibraltar.gi/monkey-talk