Monkeys Who Go Ape; Beware the Cute Apes of Gibraltar - They Love a Fight and Have a Strange Attitude to Their Own Offspring. by Sally Morgan

The Mirror (London, England), June 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Monkeys Who Go Ape; Beware the Cute Apes of Gibraltar - They Love a Fight and Have a Strange Attitude to Their Own Offspring. by Sally Morgan


Byline: Sally Morgan

They are one of the most endearing sights on the Rock Of Gibraltar and an obvious attraction for any tourist going there this summer. But the cuddly antics of a troop of macaque monkeys cradling their young is not all it seems.

The adults carrying the offspring are thuggish males with remarkable and vicious protective instincts. At the slightest provocation they can launch into an absolute frenzy, using their sharp teeth as lethal weapons and the babies as shields against attack.

For these reasons, the crew filming Sir David Attenborough's latest wildlife documentary, Monkeys Of The Rock, approached the famous Barbary Apes with obvious caution - as cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson, who spent four months filming this fascinating species, soon discovered.

"Whenever there were infant monkeys around, the adult males would become extremely aggressive," says Colin. "I found myself on the receiving end of their anger when I accidentally bumped into and almost stood on a baby that had crawled up behind me. The two-year-old males saw this and went berserk.

"Suddenly, they grabbed me and absolutely screamed the place down, but somehow I managed to get away before they bit me with their large, sharp teeth. I was afraid their screeching would attract the larger adult males, and if that had happened, I would have been bitten all over.

"In another incident, I was kneeling down with my camera when a two-week- old infant crawled on to my foot. I was surrounded by the group, praying that they hadn't spotted this, because if they had, there's no doubt they would have attacked me. I've filmed wildlife documentaries about tigers before but, believe me, once these monkeys get going they're infinitely more scary than any big cat. They're wild animals, but tourists make the mistake of treating them like pets and end up being attacked if they get too near the babies."

Originally from North Africa, the macaques were probably brought to the Rock 300 years ago by the British garrison as pets. Their status grew in 1780 after their noisy chattering alerted troops to a Spanish invasion and ever since they have been revered as a symbol of British power.

One of their characteristics that intrigued Colin was the way the males appear to take on the traditionally maternal duties of caring for the very young of the troop. However, behind this seemingly caring act lies a cunning, cruel strategy.

"We noticed that the adult males would grab infant monkeys whenever they had the opportunity," says Colin, 37. "They'd groom them and play with them, just like the mothers, and would carry around babies up to the age of one. They'd also babysit while the mothers went foraging or wanted some time off. However, we discovered that this arrangement is not as unselfish and egalitarian as it might appear.

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Monkeys Who Go Ape; Beware the Cute Apes of Gibraltar - They Love a Fight and Have a Strange Attitude to Their Own Offspring. by Sally Morgan
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