Barbary macaques: Moroccan ecological heritage threatened with extinction

Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Barbary macaques: Moroccan ecological heritage threatened with extinction

It was ten in the morning when my assistant and I started our ride from Azrou, in central Morocco, heading north to Azkoru point in the Ifrane National Park of the Middle Atlas Mountains. We were journeying into the natural habitat of one of the world’s most endangered primate species — the Barbary macaque (scientifically known as Macaca sylvanus).

It took only fifteen minutes to reach our desired location at the edge of the forest. The area is named ‘Le Cedre Gouraud’, after an 800-year-old cedar tree that died in 2003 but still towers over the surrounding trees today. Unexpectedly, the place resembled anything but the wild. Instead, we saw cars parked at the roadsides, parking attendants, local women offering tea and refreshments, and selling bananas and pistachios for the visitors to feed the monkeys, or zatote as the local Moroccans call the Barbary macaques.

“Where can I find zatote?” I asked one of the ladies selling bread and tea. She told me they usually show up from the deep forest every evening to pick up whatever food the tourists and visitors endow them. Instantly, I asked my assistant to kick off our journey hastily so that we could observe the Barbary macaques in the natural habitat before they interacted with people.

The Atlas Mountain Forest is replete with high cedar, oak, and juniper trees, and is considered one of the largest remnants of this North African ecosystem. As we got into the forest, we heard nothing but nature. Birds were chirping on top of the high cedar trees. I was looking upward, trying to detect any macaque.

After one hour of strolling in the woods, I suddenly spotted a yellowish monkey. I tried to approach him as slowly and quietly as I could. He noticed and drew closer to me too in a bid to explore the new visitor to his habitat. Soon after, and all of a sudden, dozens of macaques rushed to us from everywhere, almost touching us. I was scared for a moment till I realized they only wanted food.

It was such a mesmerizing experience to closely observe the Barbary macaque, the only member of the genus Macaca that lives outside Asia and one that is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

A Barbary macaque in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco / Credit: Khalid Bencherif.

Highly-adapted and social animals

According to some scholars, Macaca monkeys were once densely spread throughout North Africa, from Egypt and Libya to Morocco. However, due to a severe decrease in their numbers, almost to extinction, they can only be found today in some areas of Morocco and Algeria. Subsequently, their main refuge became the Atlas Mountain Forests, where there are an estimated 5,000 macaques, down from three times this number in the late 1970s.

The Barbary macaques have no tail. Nor do they have facial hair, which imbues their features with clarity and serenity. They live for around twenty-two years. While the males weigh 16-20 kg, the females weigh 11-15 kg. These monkeys will mate in autumn and winter, with births following in spring or early summer. Generally, a female gives birth to one infant for each pregnancy.

These monkeys are highly adapted to their natural habitat. Their yellowish-brown fur thickens and thins with seasonal temperature shifts in the Atlas region, which is snowy in winter and warm in the summer. Concerning food resources, the macaques have a varied diet ranging from underground plants, leaves, fruits and seeds, to fungi, invertebrates and lizards.

Their flexible dietary habits enable the Barbary macaques to survive the forest’s seasonal fluctuations in temperature and food abundance. Their ability to climb extremely tall conifer trees has helped them stay alive in the rocky slopes and rough mountains of the Middle and High Atlas. Other native large mammal species, such as lions and brown bears, could not survive such circumstances in Morocco. Both are now extinct in the country.

The Barbary macaques' ability to exhibit facial expressions, an important feature distinguishing it from other monkeys, enables the development of communicative and social behaviors that depend on facial gestures, acts of proximity and aversion, anger, and astonishment. Additionally, these macaques have a kind of family life expressed in the males' care of the mother and infants. These behaviors inform research aimed at understanding the development of spontaneous social interactive behaviors in humans, as well as in primates in general.

Threats to the Barbary macaque’s survival

In 1975, biologist David Taub surveyed the Barbary macaques in Morocco and estimated their wild population to number 21,000. But today there are only 5,000 left, thanks to excessive hunting and habitat destruction in recent decades.

Since the late 1990s, illegal trade in the Barbary macaque significantly increased. There has been a considerable increase in numbers of domesticated Barbary macaques offered to zoos in Europe, and in numbers of these monkeys seized by law enforcement authorities from smugglers. Consequently, in 2000, the EU suspended the imports of wild Barbary macaques.

Poachers hunt infant macaques for the international pet trade from the Atlas Forests and the Rif Mountains, selling each for 200 euros (about 2000 Moroccan dirham) to smugglers who move the macaques across borders into France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. According to the records of the breeding programs in European zoos, the Barbary macaque was the most commonly confiscated mammal from 2006 to 2010. During that period, it is estimated that approximately 300 infant macaques were poached annually in Morocco.

Poachers also capture infant macaques from the wild for exploitation as touristic photo props. A prime example of using monkeys to attract tourists can be seen in Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh, one of the major tourist areas in Morocco.

Another major threat to the Barbary macaques’ survival is the drastic habitat degradation resulting from the illegal and unregulated cutting of trees. This has caused the decline and deforestation of parts of the Atlas Forests that were once beautifully replenished with straight trees.

Trees are being cut down illegally for timber in the Atlas Forests of Morocco / Credit: Khalid Bencherif.

Unfortunately, there is a high demand for cedarwood in the carpentry, furniture, and handicraft sectors in Morocco, and local people also use wood for fuel in Morocco’s harsh winters, when Atlas towns and villages get covered in snow. These demands for wood tempt loggers and woodcutters to covertly target the Atlas Forest, further degrading the natural habitat of the Barbary macaques.

The macaque population's survival is not only threatened by illegal hunting and logging. Excessive overgrazing, erosion, droughts, forest fires, and environmental pollution in the last decades are all factors that contributed to endangering the Barbary macaque to the brink of extinction.

The Moroccan law prohibits both the hunting and trade in Barbary macaque, and the unregulated cutting of forests, imposing penalty fines on those who violate the law. However, these measures have not stopped the dangers threatening the macaques.

Conservation efforts to save the Barbary macaque

The Moroccan environmental authorities, represented by the Moroccan High Commission of Water and Forests, have realized that the country is on the verge of losing one of the world’s rarest primate species and the biological wealth it represents for the Atlas region. Consequently, in the last few years, they began to work harder to protect the macaque by tightening surveillance over poaching and tree-cutting, and by raising awareness of the importance of biodiversity in cooperation with various local and international NGOs.

Among the measures the government undertook to improve the conservation of the Barbary macaques was the establishment of the Ifrane National Park, which is devoted to developing environmental strategies and managing the Middle Atlas forests. The government also increased the presence of the Environment Police in these forests to protect the macaques from hunters and loggers.

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A wild Barbary macaque / Credit: Khalid Bencherif

Furthermore, many domestic and international charities in the Atlas region are becoming active in their efforts to rescue and protect the Barbary macaques. An example is the Animal Advocacy and Protection, which works closely with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In 2014, with funding from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, they launched the "Born to be Wild" project that aims to secure the survival of the Barbary macaques in Morocco’s Atlas Forests. 

The project aims to stop the poaching, smuggling and trading of Barbary macaques by monitoring the forests and informing the authorities of any suspicious actions, and by raising awareness among local communities and tourists of the measurements they can take to help preserve this wild species.

‘‘We send trained supervisors to Atlas Forests every day to track the status of macaques and collect statistical data on their reproduction, geographical distribution, and health situation,’’ says Imad Cherkaoui, the coordinator of the project in Morocco. “Then we report to the concerned authorities any suspicious human activities that may threaten the macaques.”

I asked Cherkaoui whether the recent governmental and international programs have paid off, in terms of increasing the numbers of the Barbary macaques. “Our records show a very slight increase in macaque numbers in recent years,” he said. “Yet this species is still threatened with extinction.”

Although the risk of extinction remains, it seems that the official and unofficial efforts have slowed down, even if only a little, the continuous decline of the Barbary macaque population. Thanks to their endeavors, there is less poaching and logging than there was a decade ago.

There is still an ever-present threat to the Barbary Macaques, however. That, says Cherkoui, is “the visitors and tourists who come for amusement, trying to approach and feed them, which has its health and behavioral implications for the macaques”.

Tourism endangers Barbary macaques

Remembering my trip to Azkoru Forest, when the monkeys gathered around us for food, I thought, at first glance, that it was quite abnormal behavior for wild animals.

Barbary macaques interact with tourists at Ifrane National Park in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains / Credit: Khalid Bencherif

When we finished our long tour through the depth of the Atlas Forest and back to the starting point, I was struck by what I saw. The sight of macaques fearlessly interacting with visitors, who were laughing at their behavior, and taking pictures with them one after another as they offer them dried seeds and pieces of fruit astonished me. At the same time, some macaques were climbing on the parked cars, while others were approaching, almost touching the visitors, for the sake of food.

I took a seat on a chair near to one of women selling tea in the area, and I tried to observe this strange scene. It seemed to me to be like an entertainment show for tourists in a zoo, not a wild forest. Meanwhile, and all of a sudden, an infant macaque stole a piece of sugar from the woman, then quickly climbed a nearby tree and cheerfully began to eat it.

Tourists burst into laughter, while Fatima, the tea vendor, looked up at the little monkey and started to scream at it as if she was scolding a child. Before long she recanted and smilingly said: “These monkeys remain a blessing for us anyway. Thanks to them our tourism flourishes and we get our livelihoods.”

Fatima told me that “these monkeys come out every evening from the depth of the forest for the food offered by the visitors of Azkoru Point.” This is just one of five tourist areas in the Middle Atlas, wherein you find almost the same scene: Dozens of Barbary macaques, interacting with visitors and tourists for food.

Despite the economic returns, this type of tourism harms Barbary macaques, according to environmental experts. That is because the macaques become habituated to humans, dependent on visitors for their food supply, and gradually lose their instinct of fear and caution around people. This, in turn, alters their natural behavioral patterns as a wild species and exposes them to multiple dangers.

Wild animals' instincts of fear, intolerance to human approach, and flight responses have a significant role in protecting them from any potential dangers from people. But when Barbary macaques get accustomed to humans and are no longer intimidated by them, it makes them more likely to be hunted by poachers, just as they become more vulnerable to traffic accidents on roads adjacent to the Atlas Forests.

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Barbary macaques in Ifrane National Park are well habituated to people / Credit: Khalid Bencherif

Last but not least, the problem with people feeding the macaques is that it causes them health issues such as obesity, which affects their reproductive capabilities. And some of the food thrown at the macaques is simply harmful to their health. Moreover, the frequent physical contact of this species with humans increases the risk of transmitting diseases from the Barbary macaques to humans and vice versa. As COVID-19 has so cruelly taught us, contact between humans and wildlife brings the risk of devastating new diseases emerging as pathogens jump between host species.

Barbary macaques in a time of pandemic

2020 was a year of convalescence for the Barbary macaques in Ifrane National Park, especially under the watch of the Animal Advocacy and Protection monitors who were protecting the macaques from poachers during the pandemic. At the same time, the influx of tourists and local visitors ceased due to quarantine and curfew procedures. Eventually, the primates could resettle in their natural habitat. Thus, once again, they had to find and secure their food supply without relying on humans, which enabled the restoration of their wild nature. Unfortunately, that did not last long after the lifting of quarantine and lockdown measures.

Professor Cherkaoui, in his study of the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic on endangered animals in Morocco, asserts that there was a marked increase in arbitrary hunting, trading in wild primates and other animals, as well as logging activities as a result of the collapse of ecotourism amid the pandemic-related lockdown.

In his study, Cherkaoui relied on court transcripts, crime statements documented by the Department of Water and Forestry, and other credible reports. He mentions that traffickers and poachers took advantage of the lockdown period to increase their illegal activities in protected areas, especially in places like the steppes of Argan forest, Amzi, Tiznit, and some of the Middle and High Atlas Forests. The collapse of ecotourism resulted in many local people exploiting the natural resources of these areas so they could generate income.

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A Barbary macaque climbing a tree / Credit: Khalid Bencherif.

While the conservation authorities were busy with the pandemic and NGOs suspended their activities, shepherds too seized the lockdown opportunity to release their livestock into protected areas, including the natural habitat of the Barbary macaques.

Meanwhile, environmentalists expressed their concerns regarding a potential increase in illegal hunting of endangered species. The pandemic forced many NGOs and environmental organizations to suspend their surveillance programs and lay off wildlife guards due to the lack of funding from their sponsors. They fear that this may cause irreversible damage to their efforts to conserve and preserve the threatened wildlife in Morocco.

Ecological roles of Barbary macaques

The Atlas Mountain forests are one of the richest ecologies in terms of the forest biodiversity in North Africa, and the Barbary macaques are an inseparable part of this ecosystem. All kinds of natural elements and creatures interact together in an interrelated ecology in a precise balance and harmony that is hard for us to fully comprehend. Remove one of these elements or creatures, and the whole ecological system will be affected, and in extreme cases could collapse.

Barbary macaques, for example, plays a vital role in rejuvenating the Atlas Forests and that’s why environmentalists want to strengthen efforts to prevent their extinction. The macaques disperse the seeds of cedar and oak trees in a way that enables their vigorous growth without human intervention. The macaques also play key roles in the ecological food web. This is manifested, for instance, in them preventing the excessive reproduction of harmful insects and stunted young shrubs, which might hinder the rejuvenation of forest. 

Considering their importance for forest rejuvenation, the distribution of the Barbary macaques can be considered as an index of the ecological quality of the Atlas Forests and of the changes occurring there. That’s because a decline in macaque population generally reflects a degradation in their habitat.

Barbary macaques disperse the seeds that grow into future trees / Credit: Khalid Bencherif

These monkeys are not only ecologically important. Having inhabited the Atlas for many centuries, they represent natural heritage that attracts tourists and generates income from which thousands of Moroccan people in rural and urban areas earn their living.  

Many residents of the Atlas region and the Rif Mountains have come to realize this and have therefore started to actively take part in protecting the Barbary macaque in their areas. A recent sociological study in 2018, conducted by Sherrie Alexander, concluded that that the Barbary macaque is generally perceived by local communities to be ecologically important, something that they should conserve.

Nevertheless, to preserve the wild nature of this species, environmental scientists strongly urge tourists and visitors to relinquish the habits of offering food to Barbary macaques, or touching them, or trying to take selfies and photos with them, or keeping them as pets. Cherkaoui emphasizes that “we can protect the Barbary macaque without sacrificing our national economy by adopting an ecological touristic strategy that respects the biodiversity of our nature. For the moment, that is the biggest challenge.”

Khalid Bencherif produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Arabic by Sasapost on 26 April 2021 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: A Barbary macaque mother and infant in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco / Credit: Khalid Bencherif.

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