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Barbary macaques in Gibraltar

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Barbary macaques in Gibraltar

The Barbary macaque population in Gibraltar is the only wild monkey population in the European continent. Although most populations in Africa are facing declining populations due to hunting and deforestation, the population of Barbary monkeys in Gibraltar is growing. At present, some 300 animals in five troops occupy the area of the Upper Rock area of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, though occasional forays into the town may result in damage to personal property. As they are a tailless species, they are also known locally as Barbary apes or rock apes, despite being monkeys (Macaca sylvanus). The local people simply refer to them as monos (English: monkeys) when conversing in Spanish or Llanito (the local vernacular).



All Gibraltar Barbary macaques are descended from North African populations of Barbary macaques. DNA evidence has established the present population is of relatively recent Algerian and Moroccan origin. No traces were found of a third source for their DNA, namely of a now-extinct ancient Iberian population. An earlier theory, now disproven by the DNA evidence, was that the original Gibraltar macaques were a remnant of populations that had spread throughout Southern Europe during the Pliocene, up to 5.5 million years ago. The Macaca sylvanus species is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List and is declining. About 75% of the total population is found in the Middle Atlas mountains.

During the Pleistocene, this species inhabited the Mediterranean coasts and Europe, reaching as far north as Germany and the British Isles. The species decreased with the arrival of the Ice Age, to extinction in the Iberian Peninsula 30,000 years ago. The skull of a Barbary macaque was discovered during excavation in the 1970s at the pre-Christian Navan Fort in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Carbon dating tests suggest it died in the third century BC.

The macaque population had been present on the Rock of Gibraltar long before Gibraltar was captured by the British in 1704. The original introduction of the macaques was most likely orchestrated by the Moors (who occupied southern Iberia, including Spain and Portugal, between 711 and 1492), who kept them as pets. In his work Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar (History of the Very Noble and Most Loyal City of Gibraltar), written between 1605 and 1610, Alonso Hernández del Portillo, the first chronicler of Gibraltar, wrote:

But now let us speak of other and living producers which in spite of the asperity of the rock still maintain themselves in the mountain, there are monkeys, who may be called the true owners, with possession from time immemorial, always tenacious of the dominion, living for the most part on the eastern side in high and inaccessible chasms.

In his History of Gibraltar (1782), Ignacio López de Ayala, a Spanish historian like Portillo, wrote of the monkeys:

Neither the incursions of Moor, the Spaniards nor the English, nor cannon nor bomb of either have been able to dislodge them."


The Gibraltar Barbary macaques are considered by many to be the top tourist attraction in Gibraltar. The most popular troop is that of Queen's Gate at the Apes' Den, where people can get especially close to the monkeys. They will often approach and sometimes climb onto people, as they are used to human interaction. Nevertheless, they are still wild animals and will bite if frightened or annoyed.

The macaques' contact with large numbers of tourists was causing the integrity of their social groups to break down, as they began to become dependent on humans. This induced the monkeys to forage in the town, resulting in damage to buildings, clothing, and vehicles. Close contact with humans has also led to the macaques learning how to open pockets and unzip handbags and rucksacks in order to steal food from humans. For these reasons, deliberately feeding the macaques in Gibraltar is now an offence punishable by law. Anyone caught feeding the monkeys is liable to be fined up to £4,000.

Military care

Gibraltar's Barbary macaque population was under the care of the British Army and later the Gibraltar Regiment from 1915 to 1991, who carefully controlled a population that initially consisted of a single troop. An officer was appointed to supervise their welfare, and a food allowance of fruit, vegetables and nuts was included in the budget. Births were gazetted in true military fashion, and each new arrival was named. They were named after governors, brigadiers and high-ranking officers. Any ill or injured monkey needing surgery or any other form of medical attention was taken to Royal Naval Hospital Gibraltar and received the same treatment as would an enlisted service man. Following the withdrawal of the British garrison, the Government of Gibraltar took over responsibility for the monkeys.

Officers in charge

  • Sgt Alfred Holmes of the Gibraltar Regiment (circa 1958 – circa 1986)
  • Pte. Kenneth Asquez of the Gibraltar Regiment (circa 1986 – 1991)
  • Management

    The monkeys are currently managed by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS), and veterinarian expertise is provided by the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic. The macaques receive a daily supply of fresh water and vegetables, fruit and seeds as supplement to natural food resources (leaves, olives, roots, seeds and flowers). The animals are caught on a regular basis to check their health status. Additionally, body size, weight and several other measurements are taken. Finally, the animals are given a tattoo number and a microchip as a means of identification. But tattoos are not the only way to recognise individual macaques; many of them have particular marks, scars or spots which can be used as distinguishing features. All monkeys are photographed and the pictures and individual characteristics are catalogued. Cataloguing work is carried out by the GONHS. The GONHS also does collaborative studies with the Scientific Institute of Rabat-Agdal University (Morocco), the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, United States), the University of Vienna (Austria), the German Primate Centre (Germany) and the University of Zurich (Switzerland).

    Once every year, a census is conducted to provide data and to monitor reproductive success of the whole population. These demographic data are important for the management of the population generally, and fertility regulation in selected individuals, specifically. Since Barbary macaque females reproduce well, the population on Gibraltar is steadily increasing, which in turn puts pressure on the limited habitat. Animal population control is therefore an essential part of the effective management of the population. In 2008 a small group of macaques that had permanently relocated to the Catalan Bay area were culled. In 2012 the Government Minister for Health and the Environment Dr. John Cortes stated that the Government was investigating the possibility of reintroducing over a hundred macaques to their natural habitat in North Africa.

    In October 2014, the Government of Gibraltar has announced that it will export 30 of the monkeys to a safari park in Scotland. This caused a journalist spin that they were sent to Scotland for being especially "disruptive".


    A popular belief holds that as long as Gibraltar Barbary macaques exist on Gibraltar, the territory will remain under British rule. In 1942 (during World War II), after the population dwindled to just a handful of individuals (just seven monkeys), British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill ordered their numbers be replenished immediately from forest fragments in both Morocco and Algeria because of this traditional belief.

    Another story links Gibraltar to Africa by a subterranean passage over 15 miles (24 km) long which begins at Lower St. Michael's Cave and passes under the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Gibraltar Barbary macaques entered The Rock from Morocco this way.

    In popular culture

  • The Gibraltar Barbary macaque is portrayed on the Gibraltar pound's five-pence coin since 1988 and on the tercentenary edition one penny coin since 2004.
  • They are also featured in the 2007 Stieg Larsson novel 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest'.
  • The Gibraltar Barbary macaques are also central to the plot of Paul Gallico's 1962 comedic novel 'Scruffy', set during WWII when their numbers were dwindling.
  • James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is startled by one in the pre-credit sequence of the 1987 film The Living Daylights during a training exercise on Gibraltar. Several more are seen watching and getting out of the way of Bond's struggle with an assassin on a burning munitions truck as it speeds through the tourist zone.
  • They are part of a flashback sequence in 'The Atlantis Gene' by A.G. Riddle.
  • References

    Barbary macaques in Gibraltar Wikipedia

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