Monday, September 26, 2011

A Concise History of the Barbary Ape (Macaca sylvana)


There are wild apes in Europe.  Or semi-wild apes.  But they aren't really apes, they are monkeys.  And they live in Gibraltar, a small peninsula at the juncture of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, with Spain to the north and Morocco to the south. 

But that's just the beginning of the contradictions.

A few hundred monkeys living on a rock perch at an odd crossroads where history, science and legend converge. 

One agreed upon point is that the Barbary Apes are actually macaques, a type of tailless monkey found in Morocco and Algeria in North Africa.  How they arrived in Gibraltar is less certain.  One story claims Arabs brought them in 711 AD, while another states the British army introduced them in 1740.  I've also read that British sailors in the 1700s had them as pets, but left them on the peninsula when they became too big for life on a crowded wooden ship.

A survey in 2002 counted 240 monkeys, but the Gibraltar tourism site states there are about 160.  This difference may be the result of a 2008 culling of the monkeys, after a group of some 25 began breaking into hotel rooms and terrorizing tourists on the beach.  As with human politics, the monkeys were described as a 'breakaway' group, presumably outside the mainstream views of the other monkeys who welcomed the tourists.  In 2009, several monkeys attacked a family of four, sending them to the hospital with bites and bruises.

Despite these incidents, the monkeys will probably remain in Gibraltar.  Legend has it that as long as there are Barbary Apes on the peninsula, it will remain a British colony.  When the monkey population fell dangerously low during World War 2, Winston Churchill took the matter seriously enough to order more monkeys captured in North Africa and sent in to boost the Gibraltar population. 

So if you find yourself in Morocco or Spain, go visit the Barbary Apes in Gibraltar and see the only wild primates in Europe.  Just don't get too close to them.

(Some information and the picture from this Gibraltar tourism site.  More data from this site iberianature.com.  News story on culling from The Telegraph, and the story of the attack from The Mail Online.)

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