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Saving Morocco’s endangered Barbary macaques

Limited population (Image 1 of 11)

The Barbary macaque is North Africa’s only monkey. Although the species was historically found across North Africa and Europe, wild populations are now limited to just a handful of clusters in Morocco and Algeria.

Fathers (Image 2 of 11)

A male Barbary macaque carries a baby on its back in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. It is common among this species for fathers to take an active role in parenting duties.

Monkey handlers (Image 3 of 11)

Two baby macaques huddle together in a cage at the famous Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech. Even though it’s illegal to own Barbary macaques, the monkey handlers at the square are given an exception because of their long tradition with the monkeys. Handlers make their living by charging tourists to take photos with the monkeys.

Baby macaques (Image 4 of 11)

Two baby macaques huddle together in a cage at the famous Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech.

Pets (Image 5 of 11)

A pet Barbary macaque looks out from its cage at a home in Tetouan. Most of the monkeys sold in Morocco go to tourists who smuggle them into Europe.

Ifrane National Park (Image 6 of 11)

In Ifrane National Park, tourists feed wild Barbary macaques that have become habituated to humans. Some of the monkeys have even learned how to twist off the caps of soda bottles. Scientists express concern that interactions with tourists induce stress in the Barbary macaque, which may have negative impacts on their reproductive health.

Sheep populations (Image 7 of 11)

Overgrazing in the Middle Atlas Mountains causes habitat loss for the Barbary macaque. Herds of sheep compact the soil and eat young vegetation, leading to deforestation of the cedar forests, which are the monkeys’ habitat.

The Rif region (Image 8 of 11)

The Rif region in northern Morocco has a rugged landscape that’s home to some of the last remaining wild populations of Barbary macaques.

Ahmed El Harrad (Image 9 of 11)

An avid hiker from Tetouan, Ahmed El Harrad is an expert at navigating the steep and winding terrain of the Rif Mountains. In 2004, he met British primatologist Siân Waters while he was driving a taxi. She enlisted his help in surveying the wild Barbary macaques and sharing his knowledge of the area, and the pair have since started Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, a Moroccan non-governmental organization devoted to protecting the species. As the deputy director, El Harrad drives the organization’s unmistakable “Monkey Bus” ­— a Land Rover Defender covered in photos of the Barbary macaque.

Monkey masks (Image 10 of 11)

Children from a school in Boujmil, a village in the northernmost Rif Mountains, color monkey masks as part of an education program sponsored by Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation. The organization works with local communities to prevent sport hunting and pet trafficking.

Monkey protectors (Image 11 of 11)

Villagers in the Rif used to believe the Barbary macaques were abundant and would routinely kill them for sport. Grassroots efforts by Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation — through school visits, football tournaments and educational exhibits — have led to a reversal of these behaviors, with some villagers now acting as the monkeys’ protectors.


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.  View Ensia homepage

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. 

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  • Sheldon Tait Aug. 2nd, 2020
    An excellent post, congratulations !!
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