Morocco’s Barbary macaque shouldn’t be endangered — the small primates native to North Africa reproduce well, consume a diverse omnivorous diet and can survive cold snowy winters that turn into blistering hot summers. And yet, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this hearty and flexible monkey is on the endangered species list. Today there are only about 10,000 Barbary macaques left in Morocco. In the country’s central Middle Atlas Mountains, the global stronghold for the species, the population has seen a 70 percent decrease since 1974.
Fingers point to a surprising combination of factors leading to the decline: sheep and a black market in Europe. In booming numbers, shepherds lead their livestock to graze in the cedar forests. The herds compact the soil and eat away the young trees where Barbary macaques typically sleep.
Poachers steal baby monkeys from the wild to sell as pets — mostly to Europeans who smuggle them out of the country, mainly to the Netherlands, Spain and France. But the monkeys make poor pets and many end up in zoos or sanctuaries, most of which are now at capacity for Barbary macaques.
The disparity between Morocco’s diminishing wild Barbary macaque population, and Europe’s rising captive one, has spurred conservation advocates to fight for protection of the tailless, baby-faced primate. In 2012, the Dutch Moroccan Primate Conservation Foundation, in partnership with Morocco’s High Commission for Water, Forests and Desertification Control, established a comprehensive national conservation action plan, which includes alternative livelihoods for shepherds and a stricter enforcement of pet trade laws. The goal is to stabilize the wild Barbary macaque population to at least 15,000 monkeys in Morocco within 20 years.
But beyond government programs, in the remote Rif Mountains of northern Morocco, conservation efforts are dramatically changing villagers’ attitudes toward wildlife. These encouraging results are giving hope to advocates that the Barbary macaque may still have a chance to bounce back.
Olivia Poblacion and Devdharm Khalsa spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Sara El Majhad contributed reporting.