December 5, 2015

To the customs officers question "Business or pleasure?" at the border between Spain and the British crown colony of Gibraltar I answered "monkey business" in an assertive tone. Since it's abundantly clear what that's supposed to mean he let me pass without any follow up questions and a slightly annoyed look on his face.

The Gibraltarian Peninsula is in British possession since 1704 when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession. Its location at the Strait of Gibraltar – the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea – makes it a strategically important military base for the Royal Navy.

The Rock of Gibraltar, here pictured after sunset, is the defining landmark in the area.

Due the small size of the Peninsula the airport is situated in an east to west direction, effectively separating the town from the mainland. For this reason after crossing the border checkpoint visitors also have to cross a runway either by car or by foot - a very unusual way to enter a city.

View from the Rock in the direction of the Spanish mainland.

But Gibraltar is not only famous for its unique location and interesting topology but especially for its about 200-300 Barbary macaques living on the Rock – the only wild population of monkeys in Europe.

A macaque resting at the Gibraltar Cable Car top station.

The term "wild" has to be understood in context here. Firstly due to the constant contact to humans the monkeys lost all their natural shyness and regularly approach and sometimes even climb onto people. Secondly their habitat is limited to the upper Rock area which is a rather small space. Multiple times groups of up to 25 animals ventured into the town of Gibraltar where they wreaked havoc until being captured and relocated, or killed by the local "apes management" agency.

Especially the juveniles enjoy tussling and playing with each other in the trees exhibiting some spectacular acrobatic displays.

The fact that the monkeys are completely used to human interaction makes for some hilarious scenes taking place on a regular basis. I stayed at the Gibraltar Cable Car top station, where the largest group of macaques is located, for several hours to take pictures and observe the monkeys. The events I witnessed during that time made me cry tears of laughter.

The best part is the never ending stream of completely oblivious tourists exiting the cable cars. The monkeys are already waiting for each new batch of easy prey arriving on top of the rock on a fifteen minute routine. The following eye-witness account of mine is just an example and can be beheld constantly in a similar fashion:

A young tourist couple with child are taking a relaxed walk along the road, enjoying the view and the presence of some seemingly cute and innocent little primates. Daddy is pushing a stroller, a bag lying on its seat, with up to this point to the observer unknown contents, while Mommy is carrying the about one year old offspring. Little do they know that they are already under close examination of a group of ruthless furry raiders trying to evaluate threat and reward levels of an attempted heist.

It only takes a couple of seconds until the bravest of the perpetrators makes his move. With surprising speed he descends from his vantage point in the trees, jumps the wall on the side of the road effortlessly and grabs the bag before the victims can even grasp what is going on. He just carries it away a few meters, taking a seat on the aforementioned wall and starts examining the goods. First thing in the bag – a wallet – merely gets a quick sniff. This particular thief is not after money so he just tosses it down the slope into the bushes.

The small family watches helplessly and in shock. The baby starts to cry.

The culprit checking out the loot.
A bottle of lotion is the next item to be examined.

Several other objects fail the inspection and follow a similar trajectory than the wallet before. After a short while the crime scene is piled with litter.

Numerous onlookers of various species have assembled at this point and witness the scene with varying degrees of malicious joy ("Schadenfreude" as we in Austria would say). The emasculated husband can't bear the laughter around him anymore and works up the courage to face an opponent merely about a tenth of his own weight. He walks up to his adversary with resolute steps and a stern look on his face. The thought of retreat doesn't even cross the macaques mind. Quickly he gets up on his hind legs and exposes his razor sharp canine teeth in a threatening gesture.

The husband is immediately abandoned by his newly found bravery and turns in a fluent motion walking back where he came from. His wife questions her life choices and the competence of her protector. The baby cries.

On the brink of disappointment the monkey takes out the last item from the bag in high hopes since everything else was pretty much a failure. It's a baby bottle with some liquid inside.

The thief enjoying a sweet beverage. No regrets.

After the mischief-maker leaves the scene the family quickly gathers the poor remains of their belongings – bite marks included - and escape into the safety of the cable car. Enough Gibraltar for one day.

I also observed that the monkeys would preferably target women since they expected fewer resistance from them and grab bags right out of their hands. Sometimes they even climbed and jumped on them without the intent of stealing something – for sport I can only suppose. It really looked like they were having a little competition of "Who can make the lady scream the loudest?". Seeing this spectacle wasn't only a never ending source of entertainment for them but also for me, I won't even deny it.

The newborn monkeys are an especially adorable attraction. This one is cuddling up to his mother for protection.
A daily check of hygiene is mandatory even if the tiny one has little love for it.
The social interactions between family members are a fascinating subject of study.
Always on the lookout for new ways to make trouble.
The macaques are fed on a daily basis with a variety of vegetables and fruits, additionally to the food they find by themselves. Feeding them is strictly prohibited and can lead to a fine of up to €5,500.
Even the youngest show little fear towards humans and readily pose for some photos. No telephoto lens necessary.
The Barbary macaques are more than just inhabitants of the peninsula. They are also a living symbol of the city and its most important tourist attraction. Pay them a visit and you'll understand why.

I hope you enjoyed this one just as much as I enjoyed writing it. The final article in this series deals with some special places I visited.

Thanks for reading!

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