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The Barbary Apes of Gibraltar

Growing up, “the Barbary coast” and the “Barbary pirates” always held such mystery and intrigue, so I was more than excited to see the Barbary Apes when we visited Gibraltar .

Barbary ape is a misnomer; they are monkeys. Macaques to be exact. These macaques have stubby tails and come from the northern coast of Africa. No one is sure how they first arrived in Gibraltar, but I’m putting my money on those pesky pirates.

Several Barbary apes with a pail of feed.

The Barbary apes are an iconic part of visiting “the Rock.” In fact, legend has it that if ever the Barbary apes leave the rock, then the British will leave as well. As it is such a strategic point for control over the Mediterranean, this is not a desired outcome. Therefore, once when the monkey population was dwindling, Winston Churchill ordered the retrieval of more monkeys from Africa. Today they are thriving.

A mother with a baby sits while her mate grooms her.

We talked with Brian, a primatologist working with the monkeys for 18 years, and he told us quite a bit about them. I had made the comment that there were a lot of babies, and he jumped in and corrected me right away. On average, the monkeys produce around 40 offspring each year, but this year there were only 25. This is not because there was any problem, but instead it is due to the population control program of inserting birth control pellets in the females’ upper arms.

Brian also told us that because the monkeys were vegetarians, they do not carry rabies and therefore have no need to be inoculated for it. They do get an immunization to prevent lice. Because they are often in close contact with humans, and humans are susceptible to lice as well, the authorities feel justified in trying to eradicate that pest. I’m sure everyone that has been to Gibraltar and come close to one of the monkeys is very thankful for it as well. I know I am.

Two young apes sit on the defensive wall on the rock of Gibraltar.

Many signs warn visitors to keep their distance, do not feed the monkeys, and don’t bring any food anywhere near them. Monkeys have been known to jump in the window of a car and make off with whatever catches their fancy, often a plastic bag full of cookies or other goodies. They are completely used to being near humans and have no fear of them, so have also been known to jump on them…and they do bite! But, if you aren’t bringing food, or trying to tempt them, usually they will just leave you alone.

Corinne poses with a Barbary ape high up on the rock of Gibraltar.

If you go to Gibraltar, you will inevitably go up the rock. Don’t worry, you too  will come across many monkeys. Please heed the warnings and do not feed them. There is now a 500 British pound fine if you are caught, but more importantly it is bad for both the animals and the humans that visit them.

Have you been to Gibraltar? Have you been entertained by the Barbary Apes?

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

Rhonda Albom

Wednesday 28th of September 2016

We saw barbary apes in Morocco. We have heard they are not as aggressive as the monkeys in Gibraltar, but the same warnings were there. Interesting that they have immunization for lice.

Corinne Vail

Thursday 29th of September 2016

Rhonda, Yes, I loved that fact as well. I guess when you are jumping in people's cars they don't want them spreading lice.


Tuesday 20th of August 2013

I have never been to Gibraltar but that picture with the baby monkey is priceless! :)

Corinne Vail

Saturday 24th of August 2013

Thanks Mike!

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 20th of August 2013

It's amazing to me how much time can be wasted watching monkeys!