'Apes' own a piece of the Rock (of Gibraltar)

Wild ‘apes’ stole my snuggly! A macaque on Gibraltar snatches her toddler’s favorite toy and a woman finds out about Europe’s only wild primates.

By , Contributor

'Baby' was pretty well-traveled for a stuffed giraffe. His matted fur, once yellow, was gray from hundreds of washes. His neck was floppy from being clutched tight in a tiny fist as he was dragged along on our journey. He was decorated with saffron-orangy splotches and streaks of faded purple, attesting to both the sampling of couscous in Morocco and wild mountain blackberries in Austria. His embroidered black eyes had seen a lot in a few short years. So had my 2-year-old son, Nakoa.

We prided ourselves on being prepared for any travel eventuality. But on our way to tour the Rock of Gibraltar, we discovered we hadn’t quite thought of everything.

Little-known residents of the famous mount awaited us, the tour operator explained: Europe’s only band of wild primates, the Barbary macaques. About 230 roam the upper Rock.

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As we pulled up to the entrance to St. Michael’s Cave, we were warned that the macaques were “not shy.” Food items should be left behind. Nakoa grabbed “Baby” by its floppy neck, and we clambered out of our van. We all took a moment to stand and admire the distant view of Africa across the misty Mediterranean.

Then the unthinkable happened.

One of the large, wild macaques, seemingly oblivious to the camera-flashing crowd, darted over to Nakoa with one long hairy outstretched arm.

I shrieked.

Nakoa wailed.

Together, we turned in shock and watched “Baby” disappear up the mountain in the arms of a wild “ape.”

• • •

It turns out that Baby may have been an irresistible social prop. “I imagine a subdominant male saw your child as a monkey carrying a baby and wanted to have the baby in order to be able to gain a few points in the ladder of the hierarchy,” John Cortes explained to me later after I told him my story. He is the secretary-general of the organization that maintains the macaque feeding grounds. He immediately had an idea what the macaque was up to. “A subdominant male will be able to approach a dominant male provided it’s carrying a baby, whereas if it is not carrying a baby, it is going to be chased away. Holding the baby reduces the aggression towards that animal.”

Still, Nakoa was inconsolable.

I managed to calm him with a bright. fake smile. I pretended to read from a quickly folded scrap of blank paper: “A man who lives high upon the mountain found Baby on the Rock! He says he heard we were traveling, so he thought it would be better to mail Baby to Grandma. She can take care of Baby and send him back when we get to our next stop!”

I was already devising a plan. I frantically called my mother in the US and begged her to buy a replacement giraffe, beat it up until the fur frayed, remove half the stuffing, grind dirt into it, and perhaps run it over with the car, before washing it a dozen times with diluted bleach ... and then mail it to us at our next stop.

• • •

Though the Barbary macaques are known to the local population as “apes,” their vestigial tails make them monkeys. They range from 15 to 30 inches long and weigh up to about 30 lbs. Their fur ranges from yellow-gray to gray-brown. Their faces are dark pink.

Macaca sylvanus was the earliest offshoot of the 5.5 million-year-old genus Macaca. Today’s macaque is the only living non-Asiatic representative of the genus. They were in southern Europe 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. “They were probably wiped out by the last ice age,” Dr. Cortes says, “but it is just possible they were found in Europe in some refuge in the extreme south. That’s what gives some of us the romantic feeling that perhaps ours are descended from those European survivors.”

A less romantic view is that these European macaques simply died out, and Macaca sylvanus was reintroduced to Gibraltar sometime in the 1700s, explains Robert Martin, a primatologist at Chicago’s Field Museum. “There isn’t a good historical record,” he notes.

Cortes, who has degrees in botany and zoology from the Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, and a doctorate in ecology at Oxford, is passionate about his native Gibraltar. As secretary-general of the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) Cortes finds himself immersed in the politics of protecting the tiny peninsula’s flora and fauna.

It is a challenge to balance the competing interests of land developers who want to build housing, of tour operators who draw in visitors with encounters that sometimes get a little too close, and of parents and merchants who worry about risks that scavenging monkeys pose to children or merchandise.

And although only 10,000 macaques remain around the world, their numbers have increased in recent years – a controversial point in Gibraltar, whose 2.6 square miles have a human population density that rivals that of London.

GONHS has a government contract to provide the monkeys with fresh water and vegetables, fruit, and seeds to supplement their diet of leaves, olives, roots, seeds, and flowers. The Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic, meanwhile, monitors their health.

Not everyone is impressed, though. Dr. Martin studied the macaques for 10 years before he quit in protest after a government cull five years ago destroyed half of those he had been studying. His calls for a contraceptive program have been ignored.

Opponents counter that the contraceptive program would have disrupted the macaques’ social hierarchy.

Still, Martin says, “Barbary macaques are an endangered species. There is very little attempt to conserve them in the wild. If they were professionally managed, the government could be very useful. Instead, they are giving up an important conservation opportunity.”

In the past century, however, the macaques’ numbers were worryingly small. “The numbers decreased significantly during the time of the Second World War, or so we’re told by newspaper reports that claim there were only three, four, maybe five. There might have been more in less accessible areas, but historically, Winston Churchill certainly believed, there were very few,” says Cortes. “Somebody told him this was symbolic of British dominancy in Gibraltar and if the monkeys disappeared that maybe Gibraltar would cease to be British, and in the middle of the Second World War that if it ceased to be British, it would become Nazi.

So he ordered monkeys brought over from Morocco. “Coincidentally, a great-uncle of mine by the name of William Buzon, who worked at the British Consulate of Tetuan, was tasked with capturing monkeys in the Atlas Mountains and sending them across the strait to Gibraltar. A number were brought over between 1944 and the early ’50s and were released on the Rock into the local population, which led to the population we have now.”

• • •

'Baby II' caught up with us eight days later in southern Spain. Nakoa buried his face into his beloved, and all was right with the world.

I was relieved to see him seemingly unaffected by the traumatic experience. But as we headed out of our pension on our way to the famous Zoo de Fuengirola, he stopped me. He gave the ever-present “Baby II” a long sad look and placed the giraffe inside the door with a kiss and a sigh. He might trust Grandma, but he wasn’t so sure about those apes.

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