(click on pix to enlarge)
“Right now, I am looking at 7 primates,” announces Brian Gomila, and we all look around, puzzled.
He’s pointing to all 6 of us taking his Barbary Macaque Experience Tour: me, the photographer, four teachers from Governor’s Meadow Infant School … plus the young macaque sitting on the path in front of us.
“You are all primates, and the monkey makes seven,” he continues. “I want you to identify with the macaques because we come from the same family.”
We had never thought of it that way before and as we gaze across the Strait, bathed in glorious evening sunshine, we know this is going to be a perspective-changing outing.
Right on cue, the juvenile monkey leaps onto a car and starts twanging the windscreen wipers. They can whip off the rubber in seconds!
Macaques were introduced as ‘game’ to the Rock in the 18th century, and the legend arose that Gibraltar would cease to be British if they left. Sir Winston Churchill took it so seriously, when Gibraltar’s monkey population dwindled during WW2, he ordered reinforcements!
Brian doesn’t want Gibraltar to lose its Number One Tourist Attraction either. But the pesky monkeys have been coming into town and raiding rubbish bins, which has earned them a bad reputation, and led to culls and translocations.
“Human behaviour has habituated the monkeys to behave in unnatural ways,” explains Brian. “Only by understanding and respecting them as wild animals can this co-existence flourish for the next 300 years.”
We follow the monkey’s ‘highway’ up the steep cliff to a ledge off Royal Anglian Way footpath (RAW), where Brian hopes they’ll settle for the night.
“Away from the roadside you can see these magnificent animals for what they are,” he enthuses, the only one not out of breath. You’d never believe this fit 37-year-old has a full-time desk job as a surveyor, as well as a Masters Degree in Primatology.
Gibraltar’s macaques are his passion. He spends a lot of his spare time changing public perceptions with his group outings, held throughout the year during the last two hours of daylight. He admits they’re “pretty unorthodox but also sustainable and non-intrusive – a chance to observe macaques in their natural habitat without disturbing them, like a safari.”
And what a delight it is to see them leaping about in the trees, feasting on berries and seeds – their natural food – and sipping nectar from trumpet-shaped Bear’s Breech flowers. We even tried some ourselves!
Unfortunately, monkey-feeding by tourists has upset their natural order and caused them to ‘learn’ other behaviours, like leaping onto shoulders, unzipping backpacks and snatching food.
“How scared are you of monkeys on a scale of one-to-10?” Brian asks us. “I’m a three, I have a healthy respect for them.”
Most of us are a five or a six and one of us is a nine! The mischievous juvenile on the path seems to know it and looks poised to spring.
“Juveniles, like human children, haven’t learned the rules yet but it’s a lack of respect if we allow them to jump on us – the monkey is literally walking all over you,” says Brian, coughing loudly as we walk up the hill towards a larger monkey sitting on a wall.
“Meet Basil,” says Brian, introducing us to a low-ranking female. “I cough to announce our presence, in the way that we might clear our throats to say ‘excuse me’.”
Currently there are some 200 macaques living in seven territorial groups around the Rock. It’s a matriarchal society. Rank is passed down from mother to daughter and females remain in the same group. Low-rankers like poor Basil keep to themselves as, when they try to integrate, they’re bullied.
Males establish rank through fitness and may change groups to find a mate. The dominant male here is a monkey called Smartie.
But Alice, the alpha female, is the ‘big cheese’. Brian needs to find her, as she decides where the group will kip. Being a typical female, she’s undecided and fashionably late.
Another monkey moves towards Basil and begins grunting softly. “That’s a contact call telling the rest of the group it’s time to move,” says Brian. Basil chatters her teeth. “That can be a greeting but in Basil’s case, it could mean ‘don’t hurt me’ as the second female is of higher rank.
“Would you like to touch them? You shouldn’t! How would you feel if a total stranger came up and touched you?”
“Monkeys groom each other to keep their fur in condition and to reinforce social and family bonds so if you stroke a monkey you’re committing two errors,” elaborates Brian. “You’re not grooming and you’re not family. Monkeys tolerate being stroked if they think there’s something to be gained, like a food treat. Like us, they have ulterior motives.”
We all stop dead in our tracks as a mother bounds onto the wall with a tiny black monkey baby clinging to her undercarriage, so young the umbilical cord is still attached. It’s the perfect opportunity for Brian to explain how monkey Mums use their kids to boost their group status.
“Just about every monkey you’ll see today is celebrating its birthday this month,” he tells us. “They give birth in late spring/early summer, each group synchronising births to within two weeks or so. Like humans, new-borns have natal hair and it’s black, unlike the mother’s, to stand out. My sister just had a baby and the first time she took the pram down Main Street, everyone came up to greet her. She was the toast of the town! It’s the same with monkeys.”
As if to prove the point, another monkey approaches and starts tugging at the baby for a closer look. The mother makes a round-mouth gesture – go away, in ‘monkey talk’ – but she’s too low-ranking to make it count.
Danger is averted as Smartie comes swaggering down the wall we’re sitting on, allowing Mum to make her escape. Most of us jump up too. He’s a big boy!
“Sit your ground; we do not change our position for monkeys,” instructs Brian, as Smartie nonchalantly brushes past us.
The sun is setting and the matriarch is nowhere to be seen. Just then, an adult female with a large tuft on her forehead comes loping down the path. Alice at last, and she’s heading for RAW.
“The tuft is from an injury she sustained in 2003 when I first started studying the macaques,” says Brian. “Her forehead was ripped apart and you could see her scalp. We don’t know what occurred but it was probably the result of a fight.”
Unusually, Alice deposed her own mother, Dot, when she became too old and weak. The provisioning of monkeys has extended their lifespan longer than nature intended.
“Monkeys use food to assert their dominance and in order to conduct these tours I need to assert my own” Brian tells us as we all sit on the ground for the final lesson of the night.
Hand-feeding is perceived by the macaques as a sign of weakness as they do not share food amongst each other “I use food to assert dominance over the macaques passively. By bringing out food in my own time, I remove the element of surprise. By repeating this process over many years I have developed a relationship at an individual level with these macaques that works for me, based on mutual respect”.
To demonstrate, Brian peels a banana and begins to eat it. A monkey approaches cautiously. Brian calmly makes the ‘go away’ round-mouth gesture and the monkey backs off. A more dominant monkey approaches. Brian repeats the gesture, leaning forward slightly to press the point home. The monkey retreats.
No other monkey makes a move. Not even big Smartie. “He’s seen it all before and doesn’t want the humiliation of being bossed around by me in front of the group,” explains Brian. In time, all of the monkeys will learn to leave Brian in peace to eat his food.
We learned many fascinating facts from Brian that evening, and a lot about our own behaviour. His tours are not only a wonderful experience; by understanding the Barbary macaques as wild animals you’ll learn how we can better co-exist alongside Gibraltar’s other primate!
Planning your Gibraltar monkey experience by cable car? This post and funny video has some great tips.