Gibraltar & the Barbary Apes

The Rock of Gibraltar is home to Europe’s only wild primate, macaque monkeys, locally known as Barbary Apes. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Aboard Flying Fish, I sense the Rock before I even see it. Gibraltar remains hidden by dense fog until Flying Fish is just a few hundred meters offshore. Then, the Rock appears like a specter off the starboard bow. Huge and close. I have frequently felt the presence of places I have visited on this voyage, but few affect me as powerfully as seeing this monolith emerging from the foggy Mediterranean Sea. A Gibraltar landfall is a rite of passage for many ocean sailors.

Neanderthals walked here, as did the Cro-Magnons. Arriving later were the Phoenicians, Goths, Moors, Romans, and centuries of European powers. Overlapping many of those civilizations, one group of survivors remained established on the Rock–Gibraltar’s Barbary Ape.

The “Ape” is an Old World monkey species, a Barbary macaque, originating in the Atlas and Rif Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, 20 kilometers across the Strait of Gibraltar. Some scientists speculate that the monkeys may also be related to macaques that migrated 5 million years ago across southern Europe. Regardless of their lineage, Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques are iconic to the Rock. Wrote historian Alonso Hernanández del Portillo of Gibraltar in the early 1600s: “There are monkeys, who may be called the true owners, with possession from time immemorial.”[1]

I cannot sail past the Rock of Gibraltar without reacquainting myself with this wild band of free-roaming monkeys I first met some 45 years ago. Much has changed, but the Barbary macaques are still the main attraction in Gibraltar.

A popular belief holds that as long as the macaques exist on Gibraltar, the territory will remain under British rule.[2] In 1942, after the macaque population dwindled to just seven monkeys, Winston Churchill ordered their numbers be replenished from North Africa (in the midst of World War II and Rommel’s Afrika Korps). The monkeys became so important to Gibraltar’s interests that until 1991 their care was entrusted to the British Army, and later, the Gibraltar Regiment. A “Keeper of the Apes” maintained up-to-date records for each macaque, listing births and names and supervising their diet. The War Office in 1944 gave the macaques a food budget of £4 a month for fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Each macaque was issued a serial number with its name. The Gibraltar Chronicle would announce births: “Rock Apes. Births: To Phyllis, wife of Tony, at the Upper Rock, on 30th June 1942— a child. Both doing well.” The names would often be associated with someone of stature in British society, like Elizabeth, named for the Queen, or Winston, for Churchill. If Elizabeth or Winston, or any ill or injured monkey needed surgery or medical attention they were taken to Royal Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, where they received the same treatment as an enlisted serviceman.[3] Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, along with Prince Charles and Princess Anne, met the Barbary Apes while visiting Gibraltar in 1954. A photograph shows the Queen and royal family happily feeding the macaques.

Click on any photo for a slideshow of high-resolution images with captions showing the many personalities of Gibraltar’s Barbary Apes. All photographs © Jeffrey Cardenas

About 250 macaques remain on the Rock. Although the human population of Gibraltar numbers only 34,000 people, this tiny territory of 6.8 square kilometers recorded 11 million visitors in 2019 (pre-COVID). It is one of the highest tourist-to-resident ratios in the world, and many of those visitors come to co-mingle with the free-roaming Barbary Apes. These days if the Queen fed a macaque in Gibraltar, she (or anyone else) could be fined £4,000. That penalty, however, doesn’t stop tourists from acting badly.

Early one morning, I pack a bag of cameras and climb to the top of the Rock at Prince Philips Arch, where I hope to see a troop of Barbary macaques. When I arrive, there is already a gridlock of taxi vans disgorging a mob of tourists insistent on capturing selfies with a monkey. Prince Philips Arch is in the Gibraltar Upper Rock Nature Reserve, an official feeding station for the macaques, and it is stocked today with carrots, corn, and watermelon. The monkeys, however, are more focused on the bags of snack food, candy bars, and surreptitious peanuts in the possession of the tourists. There are squeals of delight every time a macaque jumps on somebody’s head or unzips a backpack. Two young men speaking Russian tease the macaques with a peanut butter sandwich. The men are shirtless and sunburned, and possibly drunk because one man slaps the open face of his sandwich onto the bare back of his buddy, and they howl with laughter as the macaques go berserk and chase them.

Tourism reached its peak in Gibraltar in 1985, when, after years of hostilities with Spain, the border finally reopened. A flood of visitors poured onto the Rock. Some 45,000 people entered Gibraltar within the first week, increasing to over 10,000 per day. Within six months, a million people had visited. By 1986, five million visitors a year were arriving in Gibraltar. Nearly everyone who came wanted to see the Barbary Apes. To make room for visitors’ cars on Gibraltar’s crowded roads, 1,000 old vehicles were rounded up in Gibraltar and pushed off the cliffs into the sea at Europa Point on the southern tip of the territory.[4] The number of macaques rapidly increased as a result of illegal feeding by tourists. It also led to an increase in aggressive behavior as the monkeys associated humans with junk food. The problem culminated in 2008 with the Government of Gibraltar ordering the culling of a rogue troop of monkeys that was breaking into hotel rooms and scavenging garbage cans. Researchers and animal rights activists protested the cull, but the Government justified it because overly aggressive monkeys would frighten tourists and damage the economy.[5]

More recently, the Government of Gibraltar says it is making efforts to crack down on human interactions with the macaques, including daily patrols and microchips in the monkeys. In addition to fines for feeding the macaques, a new law was passed last year, making it an offense to touch or interfere in any way with the monkeys. In the 20 hours over several days that I recently spent among the monkeys in Gibraltar’s Upper Rock Nature Reserve, I saw many tourists feeding, touching, and interfering with the macaques. Not once did I see any official presence or enforcement of the tourist misbehavior.

Later, I hike to an isolated promontory above Europa Point, between what the Athenian philosopher Plato called the “Two Pillars of Hercules”–the Atlas Mountains of Africa to the south and the Rock of Gibraltar to the north. I think of the prehistoric description of this piece of land by Gibraltar Museum evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson: “While the rest of Europe was cooling, the area around Gibraltar back then resembled a European Serengeti. Leopards, hyenas, lynxes, wolves and bears lived among wild cattle, horses, deer, ibexes, oryxes and rhinos – all surrounded by olive trees and stone pines, with partridges and ducks overhead, tortoises in the underbrush and mussels, limpets and other shellfish in the waters.”

Gibraltar’s Barbary Apes are survivors in a rapidly changing world. Among the dense pines above Europa Point, I watch a troop of macaques interact, away from the melee of tourists. They forage naturally and groom each other, a sign of reduced stress. I watch a female macaque nurse an infant while a male moves close to gently participate in the parenting. This idyllic scene has me questioning whether my presence among the macaques also makes me part of the problem. I may not torment the monkeys with peanut butter, but I am, along with millions of other visitors, encroaching upon the space of a wild thing that was here first. I wonder: How can humans learn to interact with less impact and more equitably share this natural world?

In an 1887 satire by Jules Verne, the Spaniard Gil Braltar invades the Rock with a macaque troop after disguising himself as one of them. Drawn by George Roux. Credit: Public Domain


[1] “Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar,” Alonso Hernanández del Portillo (1605-1610)

[2] “The Curious Case of the Last ‘Wild’ Monkeys in Europe,” Atlas Obscura, Dan Nosowitz, 2019

[3] “Gib Monkeys,” Internet Archive, 2011, Wikipedia

[4] “Gibraltar: British or Spanish?” Peter Gold 2012, Wikipedia

[5]  “Tourism Management: An Introduction,” Clare Inkson, Lynn Minnaert, 2012, Wikipedia

Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places where Flying Fish carries me.

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021

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14 thoughts on “Gibraltar & the Barbary Apes

  1. Jeffrey,
    I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Gibraltar Apes thanks to your research and hands on experience with them. I love how they are protected and receive care at the hospital, however it seems they need more policing of tourists in the field.
    Thanks for sharing,

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Wonderfully informative adventure, JC. Thank you for taking us there with your nature photography, history lesson & articulate narrative. Fascinating to read all this about Gibraltar and the monkeys… but I am still awestruck by the ‘11 million tourists’. Hope the monkeys aren’t in charge of the infrastructure.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is a story about monkeys but it is also, as you noted, a cautionary tale about hyper-tourism. People cannot be criticized for wanting a holiday post-pandemic (although many might argue that there is nothing “post” about this pandemic). Still, nothing good can come from overwhelming a holiday destination, especially if the value of that destination is in its nature (Key West, for example).
      Thank you for reading, Emma, and thank you for your thoughtful comment.


    • Thanks, Sharon. The small graphic from the Jules Verne satire at the end of the post makes me think of more current popular culture–The Planet of the Apes. I would not have minded seeing a Barbary macaque sink its canines into the bare back of a drunk tormenting it with a peanut butter sandwich, but the sad truth is that the monkey would have been the one punished for being unreasonable.


  3. Jeff, this is one of my favorite adventures to read about that you have experienced! All the photos so capture each of the Apes personalities. I think it’s amazing that they were treated at the hospital 🏥. My fav photo is the one of the Ape that appears to be saying “Bah Humbug”. And the Rock of Gibraltar just adds to the magnificent beauty of this story. I can only imagine how awestruck to have been there in person!! 🥰🙉🙉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Nurse Leanne, how many monkeys have you treated in your hospital 🙂
      The personalities of these Barbary macaques are what captured my attention, too. Despite an isolated existence and limited population, the macaques show no outward signs of inbreeding–they are each individual.
      Thanks for your comment.


  4. Thank you so much for sharing your adventures and your reflections on the world. I often think about the impact we have on our surroundings merely by our presence, but especially in terms of dragging anchor through seabed homes or sending shocking noises from our diesel engine through the habitat of marine animals. And, yet, by visiting these places and sharing photos and stories, we raise overall awareness of the need to protect each link in our global community.

    Your writing draws me in to each moment, each scene. People tell me I should write a book (and I have many in mind!) but I read something as delicious and savory as the words you put to print and I don’t think I could ever write anything as well as you do. I suppose we all start somewhere; perhaps I will give it a go. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We certainly do make an impact wherever we are. Sailors like to think we leave a minimal carbon footprint, but when I fly home to see my family at Christmas I will be leaving behind me a contrail of greenhouse gas. This travel aboard Flying Fish has given me time to assess my actions. Nothing is perfect, but it can always be better.
      And thank you for your compliment, Noreen. Writing and photography is, selfishly, as much for me as anyone else. I want to remember these things when I can no longer experience them.


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