Your holiday in Gibraltar will no doubt at some point bring you in contact with a few neighbors you may not already know about. Gibraltar is uniquely home to the only wild monkey population in the whole of Europe.
Scientists believe that the Barbary Macaques, the proper name of the Gibraltar monkeys, were introduced to the area of Gibraltar by the Moors who lived there between 700 and 1492. The Gibraltar monkeys were likely used as pets by the occupants, however there is another school of thought that believes that the original macaques were holdovers from a population that had spread over southern Europe up to 5 million years ago.
Having said this, the only certainty we know for sure, based on historical writings, is that before the area became British territory in the early 1700’s, the macaque population was already present. All other theories of how the Gibraltar monkeys arrived on the Rock are pure speculation.
There is a legend that gave the Gibraltar monkeys much popularity during the Great Siege between the years 1779 to 1783. At that time, a combined effort between Spain and France was undertaken to siege control of the Rock from the British. During a surprise attack one evening, the monkeys were disturbed, the result being that the British were alerted and the attack from the French and Spaniards was abolished. It is from this legend that the saying was given rise, that so long as the monkeys live on the Rock, so too will the British have control.
It is interesting to know that one of the governors of Gibraltar, back in the late 1800s, would not allow the monkeys to be taken from the Rock or molested in any way. As well as that, in 1942 after the population had dwindled to just seven of the Barbary Macaques remaining, the British Prime Minister of the time, Sir Winston Churchill ordered that the numbers of the monkeys of Gibraltar be replenished immediately from both Morocco and Algeria due to this traditional belief.
The truth of the matter is that Gibraltar monkeys play an enormous role on tourism and the economy of Gibraltar. Just think of the myriad of souvenirs alone that are manufactured and sold every day. They inspire t-shirts, mugs, postcards, fridge magnets, ornaments, toys and so many other varieties of items linked to this iconic mammal of Gibraltar. All of this in turn provides employment and adds dramatically to the ever growing economy of Gibraltar.
Unofficially known as the National animal of Gibraltar, Barbary Macaques are in most cases, referred to as Gibraltar monkeys, or when spoken of in Spanish or by the locals, are simply called monos. (Spanish for “monkeys”). Currently, there are roughly 300 of these tailless species, divided into five troops that live in the area known as the Upper Rock, once in a while making brief forays into town that sometimes can result in a little damage to personal property. Although this is a negative factor, most of the locals believe that they are certainly worth the trouble as they are an integral part of Gibraltar, drawing thousands of tourists every month to see them.
Considered by vacationers to be the top attraction of Gibraltar, the Gibraltar monkeys attract attention where ever they are seen. During early mornings and late evenings, whilst approaching St Michael’s Cave after entering the Upper Rock Nature Reserve at Jews Gate, you will be sure to come into contact with a first group of monkeys. A second group can be seen heading further up toward Prince Phillip’s Arch, and yet another third large group can be spotted heading downward toward Queen’s Gate, at a popular monkey hangout known as Apes Den.
Some of the macaques are tame enough that they permit people to get exceptionally close to them, sometimes approaching the tourists and quite often climbing up on them. You are of course encouraged to use caution when this happens, as they are, regardless of how tame they appear, still wild animals and can bite or scratch if they are frightened or upset. Whilst their appearance may seem cute and almost lovable, it’s really important not to invade their space or attempt petting them.
A forth group of monkeys make their home at the Top Station of the Cable Car. Here you can enjoy the breath taking views of the Upper Rock, as well as enjoy monkey watching till your heart’s content. It’s advisable to stick as best you can to the open areas up here, as cornering the macaques in one of the narrow staircases or other confined areas, can provoke less desired behavior from the monkeys. If you find yourself in this situation, just relax and do your best to move away from the monkey, giving it as much space as possible. As well as that, try not to crouch down right next to the monkeys or stand too close to railings or walls where the monkeys are playing. The chances are quite high that one of them with either climb or try jump on top of you. They are extremely inquisitive and always on the lookout to steal hand bags or anything alike that may contain food.
On this note, avoid as best you can, carrying any food whatsoever with you, and keep all carry bags preferably on the front of your body to reduce the chances of them jumping up onto you. Remember that they are wild animals and are very capable of scratching or biting you, even if it’s on “playful” terms.
The fifth and last group of Gibraltar monkeys tend to reside on the Northern part of the Rock. You will find them grooming each other when heading up towards the Great Siege Tunnels and Moorish Castle. Grooming is actually something you will see the monkeys doing quite often if they are relaxed. This hair combing social habit is practiced by the macaques to help clean each other as well as build on their social bonds. When you see this happening, try give them some space to enjoy their favourite pastime.
On a separate note. Please DO NOT feed the monkeys. Processed foods are terrible for their health, not to mention the extreme long term negative effects it has on their social behavior. The Gibraltar monkeys, had in fact, so much contact with so many, including both tourist and local alike, that their social groups began to break down over time. They unfortunately became quite dependent upon human interaction to feed them, which encouraged their foraging in the town, and doing damage to both clothing and people, as well as to buildings and automobiles. This resulted in a law in Gibraltar that makes feeding the macaques punishable by law. If you are caught feeding the monkeys you may net yourself a fine of up to £4000.
In the past, the populace of Gibraltar Macaques was taken care of by the British Army, and later on, by the Gibraltar Regiment, so that from about 1915 to 1991, they were under military supervision, who controlled their population, and appointed an officer who supervised their welfare. This covered food allowances of such items as fruit, vegetables and nuts, which they included in the budget that was incorporated especially for the care of the monkeys. The officers also recorded the births of the macaques, and in proper military fashion, every single new infant was named when they were seen, many of them named after a governor, a brigadier or a higher ranking official.
Any which were taken ill or were injured in any way were taken to the Royal Naval Hospital and in fact received treatment equal to that of any other enlisted person. With the withdrawal of the garrison, the Gibraltar Government received the responsibility for the care of the Macaques.
Today things are a bit different and the monkeys are managed now by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) and the monkeys medical and nutritional care is provided by the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic (GVC). Each day the macaques receive a supply of fresh water, are given vegetables, fruit and seeds as supplement to the natural food resources that they forage, and are regularly caught and checked to assure their good health.
With a nod to new technologies, today the animals are given a tattoo number and a micro chip as a means of identification. Once each year, a census is conducted to monitor reproductive success of the whole population, and to prevent what could prove to be a problem with the increasing population and the limited habitat of Gibraltar.
All in all, a visit to Gibraltar would certainly not be complete without having seen the Gibraltar monkeys up close. It’s an experience of a lifetime and definitely not one that should be missed!
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