Monkey magic

28 February 2021

Second only to the iconic rock itself, the monkeys who live on its slopes are synonymous with Gibraltar and, given the amount of simian merchandise, perhaps its biggest tourist draw. But with the tourists gone and especially during January’s lockdown restrictions it has felt like Gibraltar’s monkeys have been our only company. We had been fascinated and yet mildly terrified by our close encounters with them on our first visit and so climbing the Rock to find them again was one of the first things we did when we returned.

Technically Macaca Sylvanus or Barbary Macaques, whether they are monkeys or apes has been a bit of a debate. Known locally as Rock Apes and looked after by the Gibraltar Government’s Ape Management Team, it turns out we’ve been right to call them monkeys all along. Although tiny stumps, the barbary macaques have a tail which qualifies them as monkeys and they are the only wild monkeys in Europe brought across from Africa by the Moors when they make the Rock their kingdom.

Any visit to see them comes with very healthy hazard warnings, for them and for us. These monkeys are definitely wild and yet completely unfazed by humans. They have become so used to tourists that we have seen them snatch bags in search of food and jump on people’s back as though they were simply just another obstacle in the way. Getting caught feeding the monkeys now attracts a £500 fine after too much human food was giving them diabetes. Getting too close risks a very nasty bite and we have heard enough tales of bites to risk it.

Unlike searching for koalas in Australia a sighting of at least two or three monkeys is guaranteed on any trip to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. They will sit in the middle of your path and if you try to pass them too close they will soon let you know they are unhappy about it. I had as close an encounter with a larger monkey up near the feeding station right at the top of the Rock. When it wouldn’t budge I thought maybe I could squeeze by but soon found myself on the end of some serious monkey rage, bare teeth and everything, and retreated as quickly as I could to a safer distance and simply waited until s/he was ready to get out of my way.

To avoid permanent incursions into areas of human habitation the population of monkeys is carefully managed. Although when we saw a monkey sitting on top of the Ape Management van we wondered who really manages who! And the population seems very healthy indeed. About 300 monkeys live on the Upper Rock in about five separate groups and there were certainly a lot of babies around this year.

They are incredibly cute,

extremely fast, agile

and playful

and really don’t like to pose for the camera!

I did spot this one having a moment of calm high up in a tree and apparently learning to count on her fingers.

We know very well not to take any food up the Rock with us and to hide our water bottles very firmly inside our rucksacks but when they are not stealing snacks from unsuspecting tourists the monkeys are fed a diet of fruit and veg at the two feeding stations which supplements their foraging for berries, plants and insects.

There is, however, no doubt that the principal activity of the monkeys is grooming. They seem to spend any time not allocated to sleeping and eating to searching thoroughly through the thick fur of their mates and other family members and picking out juicy fleas ripe for eating!

Despite their habits, ever so occasionally it is not so hard to see that these might be our distant cousins!

Whatever they are doing these monkeys are guaranteed the best views of the bay every single day

and despite their standoffishness, verging on disdain, we love these icons of the Rock. They have motivated our hikes and, perhaps reluctantly, shared their domain.

We will be very sorry to wave them farewell when we finally leave…

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