Nature, Travel


When thinking of monkeys and their natural habitat, one usually associates them with Asian tropical forests, South American rainforests and African mountainous areas, knowing that they prefer warmer climates and most cannot survive in places that are too cold or dry. Despite these facts, the so-called Barbary macaques have lived on the famous Rock of Gibraltar, an overseas territory of Great Britain, for centuries.

Here on the southern tip of Spain, where Europe and Africa are divided by the 14 km straits that separate the Atlantic from the Mediterranean, a tiny strip of land juts out into the water, largely dominated by tourism and the military, and apparently patrolled by the monkeys. Spaniards, British, Italians, Portuguese, Moroccans and Maltese have settled here over time and this is evident by the different cultures and languages. English is the official language, but Spanish is the preferred language. 

Gibraltar attracts thousands of visitors each year. Many come for its duty-free status, others to see its unique airport with a runway that separates Gibraltar from mainland Spain, and a greater number visit to see the rock and the famous monkeys and ask, how did they arrive at the European continent?

There is sufficient fossil evidence that macaques and other primates and monkeys lived on the European continent thousands of years ago. Back then, however, temperatures were more humid and biodiversity was richer and different from today. With the cooling of the earth, many animal species migrated to the warm south or died out over time. The European monkeys succumbed to the same fate and found a new home in North Africa, where they spread across the Maghreb region, from Tunisia to Morocco. Today, due to the destruction of their natural habitat, their occurrence is limited to only a few isolated populations in Morocco and Algeria, which is why they have been on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 2009. At present, the only place where the population is not declining is Gibraltar.

To be more precise, on the upper part of the rock, which is designated as a nature reserve and accounts for around 40% of the whole area of Gibraltar, the Barbary macaques, which are actually still wild, live a relatively quiet and safe life in large groups. Most stay near the top of the 426 m high cliff, other groups live further down near the humans and are not afraid of getting too close. On the contrary, they show neither shyness nor respect when it comes to getting something to eat, and don’t hesitate to snatch ice cream or chocolate from visitors’ hands or steal bags. The braver ones even climb on shoulders and pull hair. Occasionally they also make excursions down into the city to wreak havoc there. However, they are not naturally aggressive, but will react like any wild animal and will bite if threatened or upset.

As in a large family, they live together in large groups and are kept together by a small group of females, with the strongest males leading the group. Mutual grooming strengthens their bond, with a special remark being that the males are also included in the upbringing and the whole pack takes care of all the young together.

Read the full article in Issue 17

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