How “problem monkeys” start: The macaques of Morocco’s mountains
After witnessing the pitiful abuse of captive Barbary macaques in Marrakech last month, it was a relief to seek out the wild cousins of these monkeys in the Middle Atlas mountains of central Morocco. That’s what Keri Cairns, our roving representative zoologist, told us in his latest e-mail report. The Moroccan Primate Conservation Foundation, which IPPL is helping to support, provides education programs for local schools about the Barbary macaques in the region.
Keri described the next leg of his journey to us:
“My next stop after Marrakech was the town of Ouzoud, home to the Cascades d’Ouzoud, Morocco’s largest waterfall. It’s a popular destination for tourists taking a daytrip from Marrakech. On the sides of the spectacular gorge lives a large group of macaques.
“The owner of my hotel, Abdoul, is a long-time supporter of MPC’s work and was able to advise me on the best place to see the monkeys on my first morning. It was not difficult. I literally walked down a path for five minutes, and there they were. They sleep in caves scattered around the gorge, and in the morning they descend to feed on the olive and oak trees that line the steep slopes.
“It soon became apparent that this group was very well habituated to humans. Within 10 minutes I had a young male monkey jump on my shoulder and have a nibble at my head.
“I was able to get him off; it’s not the first time this has happened to me. But why had he done this?
“The answer became apparent later in the morning, with the arrival of the first wave of tourists. I enjoy just being around the monkeys and watching their interactions and acrobatics but, for the tourists and guides, this is not enough. They feel compelled to feed the animals!
“This results in the monkeys’ associating humans with food. This, in turn, results in many problems for the monkeys:
- Decreased fear of humans, leading to increased aggression.
- Reduced amounts of natural behaviors, such as grooming and foraging.
- Tooth decay.
- Increased parasite burden and disease rates.
- Traffic accidents.
“Fortunately, after spending five days observing the group at Ouzoud, I believe that the situation here is still in its infancy. Most of the monkeys are still wary of humans. The current adult males stay in the background and just keep an eye on things. But I was able to recognize two young males who have no fear, one of whom was the youngster who leapt onto my head.
“My young friend is perhaps four years old. In another few years he will have the muscles and big teeth of an adult male. If he is still not afraid of humans, he will soon realize that if someone has food, he just needs to approach that person aggressively, and his human target will drop the treat.
“A few of the females have started to use this approach at one of the cafés overlooking the waterfall. I witnessed one monkey just walk onto a table and grab a large chunk of bread. The diners were afraid, but they also laughed and thought it was very funny.
“The same female then approached my bread, but I waved my arms and she ran away. Unfortunately, some other customers thought I was mean, so they gave her their bread, instead!
“It is this kind of human behavior that will, in time, lead to some of the other problems mentioned above. If a monkey can get a huge amount of calories just by raiding the café, then why bother scaling the gorge all day in search of natural food?”
From what Keri has hinted to us, his next stop in the Middle Atlas, at Azrou, bears witness to just how bad this kind of situation can get.