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Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques – “as long as they remain, so will the British”

Gibraltar is home to the last free-range population of monkeys in Europe. Dr Eric Shaw explains their historical and contemporary significance to the Rock 

By New Statesman

How monkeys arrived on the Rock is, for the most part, a story lost in time. The Barbary macaque was once widespread throughout Europe before the last Ice Age. However, it was still very unlikely that Gibraltar would become home to the remnants of those European populations. One could speculate that they were brought here by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – or more plausibly the Moors, who actually occupied the Rock for the longest period of time. But all would be speculation, as there is no documented evidence to support any of these hypotheses.

Historic origins

One of the first written records of macaques in Gibraltar came from the Spanish writer Ignacio Lopez de Ayala in his Historia de Gibraltar of 1782, where he mentions that macaques were being “persecuted”. Many academics do not, however, consider Ayala’s Historia as a sound documented record even though he is greatly quoted.

The macaques’ presence on the Rock gained popularity during the Great Siege of Gibraltar between 1779-1783, during which Spain and France launched an ongoing assault upon British Gibraltar by sea and land. One surprise attack – so the legend goes – was thwarted by the monkeys who were disturbed in the night, and in turn alerted the night watch to the attack. This legend gave rise to the saying that as long as the monkeys remain on the Rock, so will the British. It is also known that General George Eliott, a governor of Gibraltar in the late 1800s, would not suffer apes to be molested or taken.

Modern times

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From 1915 to 1991, the monkeys were enlisted on the nominal roll and cared for by the military. This was mainly due to the complaints down the years, mostly by the military themselves, of damages caused by a lack of control over these wayward simians.

An officer in charge of apes was appointed to the care and provision the monkeys at Queens’s Gate, an area of Gibraltar where then much of the macaque population was concentrated. A daily count was to be taken, and this continued till 1991 when the government of Gibraltar took over from the Ministry of Defence. Provisioning continues today as it did with the military, so as to hold the monkeys on the upper reaches of the Rock.

The monkeys, for their part, continue to search out gullible tourists and residents alike in the search for rich pickings (they do like our junk food). Tourists love to feed them throwaway, high-calorie food. These intelligent creatures have adapted to this habit – it may appear that they depend on us but this is not the case. Rather, they use us. If we don’t feed them our wasted food, they will go and forage.

A helping hand

At the Helping Hand Trust, we have a macaque team that help look after the monkeys within our wider conservation work. Part of our job is to provide an easy morning breakfast and hold them on the upper reaches of the Rock. Other members of our team patrol the lower reaches and urban areas to ensure waste food is disposed of within purpose built waste bin enclosures, so as not to attract the animals.

On the upper Rock, the objective is to curtail tourist feeding. It is a difficult task, as many simply can’t resist their pleading look and cheeky approaches (my own mother couldn’t; they always got one more chocolate!).

And what about the recent headlines about “disruptive monkeys” being exported to Scotland? It’s a journalistic spin; a Scottish wildlife park asked if we could let them have a troop of monkeys. We sent them a troop of 30 – one cohesive group that all knew each other.

A cultural mascot

The macaques on Gibraltar are of European significance, they are the only free-ranging primates in Europe, and they are the only macaques outside of Asia.

The significance of this population to Gibraltar is far-reaching, they are our flagship species, and they are iconic to Gibraltar. They are an economy unto themselves, providing inspiration for postcards, mugs, fridge magnets, t-shirts, and a multitude of other untold souvenirs. From the perspective of tourism, they are a key part of an industry that provides employment to a great number of people. Without them, as the legend says, we would not be who we are.   

Dr Eric Shaw is director of the Helping Hand Trust, and supervises the macaques within Gibraltar’s Upper Rock Nature Reserve

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