Perhaps Gibraltar's most important tourist attraction, the Barbary Macaques are normally found in North Africa, but their presence in Gibraltar probably dates from the early days of the British garrison when it is presumed that 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 is that they travelled from their native Morocco via a subterranean tunnel starting at St Michael's Cave leading down underneath the Strait of Gibraltar.
Another legend claims that, should the macaques ever disappear, the British will leave Gibraltar. During the last war, natural causes had diminished the macaque numbers alarmingly. Fortunately, Sir Winston Churchill took a personal interest and additional animals were imported from Morocco. Today, in addition to the pack resident at Apes’ Den, there are other packs living wild on the steep slopes of the Rock. Gibraltar does not wish to lessen ‘the monkey experience’ but experts have warned that too much human interaction is harmful to these wild animals.
Primarily because we want them to remain living as they are, in a semi-wild state, we strongly advise you not to get too close, feed or touch them. Finally, because they are wild animals, they may react violently and have been known to attack and inflict serious bites. By all means take photographs but please allow the monkeys to live a natural, free life for their benefit and the enjoyment of all. Just keep a safe distance, do not shout or make sudden movements.
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.