24 August 2006

Do not feed the apes

“Do not feed the apes.” It should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me that my immediate reaction was, “Do not feed the apes to what?”

They aren’t really apes, of course, but monkeys; a tailless species of macaque (Macaca sylvanus), to be precise. They’re native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, and there’s a small population of them in Gibraltar – the only primates (other than Homo sapiens) living free in Europe. They grow to around 22-33 pounds and 22-28 inches long, and live around 20-31 years.

The African forests where they live are being reduced by logging, with the expected impact on the monkeys, and the local farmers view them as pests. The IUCN Red List calls them vulnerable (only one step above endangered), with only around 1200-2000 left.

There are some 300 of them in Gibraltar, living in five troops. From 1915 to 1991 they were under the care of the British Army, with an officer appointed to supervise them and money for their food built into the budget. Since the Army left, the government of Gibraltar has been responsible for them. Popular rumour has it that as long as the monkeys live in Gibraltar, it will remain under British rule; supposedly Winston Churchill had more monkeys imported during World War II to ensure continuity.

This mother and infant are perched on a rail well up the west side of the Rock. (You should be able to make out my boat moored to the south mole, just to the left of the mother’s shoulder). Quite a drop behind them, but whoever heard of a monkey with acrophobia?

Don’t know if this is the same pair – I saw several babies when I was there - but here they’re strolling through the crowd of tourists who aren’t supposed to feed them, over near St Michael's Cave. Cute little buggers, but I wasn’t about to follow some people’s lead and let one sit on my shoulder for a photograph....

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