Monkeying Around in Gibraltar


Apes of GibraltarThe woman cautiously offered a treat from her bag of candies to the outstretched paw. The ape, however, had other ideas.

He quickly grabbed the bag and scurried back a few feet to his perch. There, he sat and contentedly began to devour the contents of the whole bag while daring the tourist and other apes to try and take his snack away from him.

Most of the tourists laughed at his antics, but for some, it was a nervous laugh, and we took a tighter grip on our own treats.

The apes are one of the best-known attractions in Gibraltar, second only to the famous “Rock” itself. The peninsular on Spain’s southernmost tip is in fact a British Crown Colony, one of the last remnants of the once great British Empire. Gibraltar is a vibrant community and a rather unique place to visit.

The name comes from 10th Century Moorish leader, Tarik ibn Zeyad. He christened it “Gebel Tarik” (Tarik’s Mountain). From 911 AD to 1309, North Africa Moors overran this area and most of Spain. The Spanish recaptured Gibraltar in 1309 and, for the most part, managed to hang onto it for another 400 years.

In 1704 the British invaded and captured the peninsula. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded the territory to the British. But the Spanish were not willing to accept this and continued to attempt to retake the peninsula. Gibraltar was besieged no less than 15 times over the next 300 years. The longest was the great siege that commenced in 1779 and lasted three years and seven months.

It was during this time that the British began their immense tunnelling projects that would continue until the 20th Century and ensure that the entire mountain was honeycombed with caves and tunnels. In fact, the phrase “solid as the rock” is somewhat of a misnomer in Gibraltar.

Even in the 20th century, the Spanish refused to relinquish their claim on the territory. General Franco sealed the border from 1969 until 1985, forcing all goods to be brought in by sea or air. A recent referendum held on whether the territory would remain British saw about 12,000 votes cast to remain a colony and only 12 to join Spain.

Gibraltar is not only politically different from Spain, but physically unique, as well. The Rock is made of Jurassic Limestone, which is different from the nearby Andalusia Mountains of southern Spain. There is also a physical gap between the mountains and the rock. In fact, the Rock of Gibraltar more closely resembles the Atlas Mountains of nearby North Africa.

Gibraltar is only 3.7 miles (6 km) long with most of that area taken up by the rock itself. There are 30,000 inhabitants in this tiny area between the water’s edge and the steep rise of the hill. The population of Gibraltar is a mix of British, Spaniards, Maltese and Moroccans, among others.

English is the official language, although Spanish is widely spoken, too. Currency is the Gibraltar pound, which has the same value of its British counterpart. Euros are also accepted in most places, and prices are often posted in both currencies.

The Barbary macaques of Gibraltar, bands of semi-wild apes, are the only wild primates in Europe. The apes are not very large – the adults stands about as tall as a human child – and are reddish orange in hue.

There are approximately 200 apes in several extended families or packs scattered among the higher reaches of the “Rock,” mainly near the Upper Siege tunnels and at the “Apes Den” near the cable car station. The later is a regular stop on all the tours.

Candy stealing aside, the apes are used to humans and tolerate the daily procession of tourists who come and watch them play. They will allow you to get close and feed them and even pose for pictures. Some of the older ones will even ham it up for the cameras as long as you give them a treat. Although they are wild animals, there are only two things to be careful of, as the tour guides point out.

First never try to get too close to the baby apes. Like most animals, the mothers are very protective. Secondly, as in the case of the candy lady, be careful of anything in your hands, especially food and/or shiny objects. As far as the apes are concerned, they’ll grab anything they can, and they’ll keep it. Somewhere in the crevices on the side of the rock it is rumoured there is a cache of sunglasses, jewelry, cameras and other items that used to belong to tourists who didn’t heed their guides’ warnings.

No one is quite sure of how the apes came to Gibraltar in the first place. One theory is that they arrived with the British soldiers and sailors as pets. There are, however, no records to support this idea.

One popular theory offered by our guide was that they might have migrated from Africa.  Morocco is only 15 miles (25.5 km) across the Strait of Gibraltar, and the only other known colonies of Barbary Apes are found in the Middle Atlas Mountains of that country and neighbouring Algeria. Then again, it is also believed that these apes were indigenous to southern Spain at one time.

Not only does no one seem to know exactly where the apes come from, but also no one is quite sure where they go when they die. No one has ever found the remains of any of the colony’s deceased apes. It appears that they seem to know when it is their time and disappear into the wilds of the mountain to some undiscovered ape graveyard.

It’s not known where the apes go to die. No one has ever found the remains of a diseased ape.

While alive, local authorities ensure that the apes are well cared for. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once remarked that the British flag would continue to fly over Gibraltar as long as the apes remained there.

Someone must have taken his words literally, for the apes are the most privileged residents of Gibraltar. Care of the apes was originally the responsibility of the British Army and now rests with the local government.

Proof of their preferential treatment is that if an ape becomes ill, it is treated at the local military hospital. Citizens of Gibraltar, military aside, are usually not allowed this privilege.

One antic of the apes that is not appreciated by the residents is their habit of visiting the town. On occasion, some will stroll down the mountain and into the streets. Here they amuse themselves by breaking windshield wipers off cars and other acts of petty vandalism. The local police must then catch the apes, place them in the back of a police car – something they usually object to rather forcefully – and then drive them back up to their dens.

One local policeman noted that noisy drunken sailors from the old days were less of a problem to get into the car than a fun loving Barbary ape. The sailors usually stayed put once their celebrations were curtailed. As for the apes, the minute they’re set free on top of the mountain they turn around and head back downtown again.

If You Go

Gibraltar Tourist Information