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The Barbary Macaques Image

The Barbary Macaques

January 28, 2019

The famous Barbary macaques of Gibraltar are the only wild monkeys in the European continent. While macaque populations in Africa are in decline due to deforestation and hunting, the population in Gibraltar is growing.

They are a massive tourist attraction in their own right, living in large numbers at the Apes' Den at Queen's Gate and in the area of the Great Siege Tunnels. When undisturbed, the macaques will behave in a natural way, but they are also used to tourists and will interact with the human visitors too.


Nobody is 100% certain how the Barbary macaques came to be living on Gibraltar. The species was once commonly found throughout Europe, before the last Ice Age, but that still wouldn't explain how Gibraltar became home to a sizeable population.

There has been speculation that the macaques were brought to Gibraltar by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans or the Moors, but there's no concrete evidence to support any of these theories.

The first written record of macaques on Gibraltar comes from the non-fiction book, Historia de Gibraltar, written by Spanish author Ignacio Lopez de Ayala, in 1782.

The monkeys inadvertently helped Gibraltar during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, between 1779 and 1783. Spain and France were at war with British-ruled Gibraltar and launched a surprise attack at night. However, according to the legend, the monkeys were disturbed by the stealthy attack and their noise alerted the night watch to the onslaught.

This incident created the saying, "Along as the monkeys remain on the Rock, so will the British."

General George Eliott, who was governor of Gibraltar in the late 19th century, was also a great protector of the Barbary macaques, outlawing cruelty against them and not permitting any of them to be taken.


Between 1915 and 1991, the monkeys were looked after by the military, with an officer appointed to be in charge of caring for the macaques at Queen's Gate, where the largest population was recorded.

The project was launched because the monkeys were feared to be out of control, leading to complaints by the military themselves that they were causing damage. Officers in charge of the project took a daily count and ensured the macaques were cared for.

The military practice came to an end when the Government of Gibraltar took over from the Ministry of Defence in 1991. The last officer in charge was Private Kenneth Asquez, between 1986 and 1991.

Helping Hand Trust

Wildlife charity the Helping Hand Trust has a designated macaque team that helps to look after the monkeys as part of its conservation work. The trust provides breakfast for the monkeys and also tries to keep them in the upper region of the rock.

The team also patrols the lower reaches and urban areas of Gibraltar to make sure waste food is properly disposed of, so that it doesn't attract the animals.

In the upper areas, the aim is to prevent tourists from feeding the macaques - a difficult task, because most people can't resist them. The monkeys have no fear of approaching people because they are so used to human visitors.

The trust is trying to stop people from feeding the monkeys because tourists tend to give them high-calorie junk food, which isn't good for them, although they will eat it. If tourists can be encouraged not to feed the monkeys, then they will go and forage for natural foods.

Population today

There are around 300 Barbary macaques on Gibraltar, split into five troops occupying the upper Rock area in the Gibraltar Nature Reserve. However, they will venture into town on occasion. The Apes' Den is a major tourist attraction, as people love watching their antics.

Males live up to around 25 years old, while females can live up to 30 years old. The males are bigger and weigh up to around 32lbs, while the females weigh on average 21.8lbs.

Considered by many people to be Gibraltar's top tourist attraction, the monkeys have even been known to climb on to people, although some caution should still be observed since they remain wild animals and therefore unpredictable.

They have even been honoured with a royal visit on 11th May 1954, when Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were on an official trip to Gibraltar. The Queen fed a Barbary macaque, watched by the ape-keeper, Gunner Wilfred Portlock.

An annual census is conducted to monitor the population and also the fertility of certain animals, as some Barbary macaque females are known to reproduce well. The population on Gibraltar continues to increase steadily.

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