When you think of monkeys, your thoughts probably run to the African savanna or the rainforests of South America. You’d be right on both accounts, but you’d probably never guess that you could visit wild monkeys in Europe as well. On the southern tip of Spain is a small peninsula called Gibraltar. It’s the only place in all of Europe where you can see and interact with wild monkeys.
Gibraltar is a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of Spain. While it’s connected to the mainland of Spain, it’s technically a territory of Britain. The landscape is dominated by a 1,398-foot limestone rock face called the Rock of Gibraltar. The Rock itself is a nature reserve that’s home to many different species of plants and animals, including the world-famous Barbary macaque monkeys.
The climate in Gibraltar is hot and humid in the summer and mild during the winter. There’s hardly any rain in the hot season. There are also no freshwater springs in Gibraltar. Before the desalination plant was built in the 1980s, the people and animals relied on the Rock for drinking water. The slope of the Rock would collect rain and funnel it down into rain-catchment areas, both natural and manmade.
History of Gibraltar
The Strait of Gibraltar is the only channel that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic, which makes it very desirable as a strategic military outpost. For most of recorded history, the peninsula has been contested by several different countries. The first modern inhabitant was Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, a Muslim commander who captured Gibraltar in 711 CE.
In 1462, the Spanish came from the north and pushed out the Muslim armies, claiming Gibraltar for themselves. The Spanish held the area for over 200 years, but during the 1701 War of the Spanish Succession, a military leader named Sir George Rooke took Gibraltar for the British. Gibraltar has been a British territory ever since. There have been several attempts by the Spanish to retake the peninsula, but none have succeeded. It’s been a point of contention for both countries even into modern times. A Spanish diplomat visited Gibraltar in 2009, which was the first time a Spanish official had visited since 1704.
Today, Gibraltar is still technically a territory of Britain, but the people are allowed to represent themselves in governmental proceedings.
Monkeys of Gibraltar
While the military history of Gibraltar might be fascinating, the monkeys are the real stars of the show! No one is really sure how they got to Gibraltar. Some think that they were brought over from Morocco by the Muslims; others think that maybe the monkeys got there by themselves because of the short distance from Africa; or perhaps the British just enjoyed having monkeys nearby for company and shipped them over. Either way, around 300 Barbary Macaques call the rock home. They are Gibraltar’s biggest tourist attraction.
When Britain took control of Gibraltar, it was famously stated that “when the apes leave the Rock, so too will the British.” Winston Churchill took an interest in the monkeys of Gibraltar, and when the populations were dwindling at one point, he had more brought over from Africa to repopulate the area.
Even though Gibraltar has lost its military importance, it’s still officially a territory of Britain. And since the British are still around, so are the monkeys. People flock from all over just to get a glimpse of the only primates (besides humans) living in Europe. The climate of Gibraltar isn’t necessarily the optimal environment for Barbary macaques to live, but with a little help, they’re still thriving. They’re protected by the government, fed regularly, and given fresh water to drink.
The monkeys are so familiar with people that it’s not uncommon for them to jump on people’s shoulders and cars and even to try and steal things from backpacks and pockets, especially if there’s food involved. There are occasional instances of aggression, so tourists are encouraged to follow a few rules when visiting. They’re still, after all, wild animals.