l-qerd eš-šaref ma-itﻉallem eš-šṭiﺡ
“An old monkey can’t learn to dance.” Moroccan proverb.
Before my readers are outraged by the title of this post, I want to make it clear that what I am talking about is not something such as pig-sticking, a popular diversion of rich foreigners in Tangier about a hundred years ago. In those days, horsemen chased wild boar and ran them through with pikes. No, I am only talking about seeking out monkeys to watch them.
Watching monkeys in Africa may not sound like such a big deal. Many species of Old World monkeys inhabit the tropical forests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. In North Africa, however, there is only one species, of the genus, Macaca. Macaques are common in many parts of Asia, but only a single species, Macaca sylvanus, is found in Africa. These large monkeys are limited to the mountains of Algeria and Morocco.
Always interested in natural history, I hoped to see macaques in their native habitat, and my expectations seemed reasonable since I lived in Sefrou, on the edge of the Middle Atlas Mountains.
There are pockets of these monkeys in the Rif, the Middle Atlas, and the Central High Atlas Mountains as well as in the mountains of Algeria. A small population also lives on the Rock of Gibraltar, where they are known as Barbary Apes, and are a major tourist attraction. The name Barbary Apes is a misnomer, of course, for macaques are not apes at all, but monkeys.
With no fossil evidence of them in post-Pleistocene Europe, the most reasonable explanation for their presence in Gibraltar is that the macaques were introduced by Europeans or else Moorish invaders in the Middle Ages. The British Army used to feed and care for the monkeys, and there was a tradition that as long as there were apes on the Rock, Gibraltar would remain British. Indeed, Winston Churchill sought to have their numbers augmented when the population seemed in decline.
Today, the greatest numbers of Macaca sylvanus, estimated to be about 75% of the total population, live in the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. Some of my earlier blog articles show views of their habitat, cedar forests with an understory of holm oaks. The cedars and oaks are associated, with the oaks providing a moist environment for the growth of young cedars.
The Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica) is one of three true cedar species, the other two being native to the Middle East and the Himalayas. The holm oak (Quercus ilex) and the Atlas cedar are both found in Great Britain. Majestic Atlas cedars grace many country estates there, but holm oaks, alas, are simply an invasive species. In France, cedars are grown for lumber and as part of reforestation efforts. A French friend had thousands planted on his hilltop property outside Albi, and royal parks, such as the one surrounding the Château of Chaumont-sur-Loire, often have groves of ancient trees.
The macaques eat a diet of seasonal foods: cedar bark and cones, acorns, mushrooms, and many other wild plants as well as insects.
Today the numbers of Macaca sylvanus are in steep decline, probably due to disappearing habitat, and the species has been officially listed as endangered.
My work in Fes Province occasionally took me over the mountains. In those days, Fes Province extended south as far as Boulemane and Missour. More often than not, I took excursions into the forests with friends and visitors, made possible by the Jeep I used for work.
While a troop of monkeys might occasionally be spotted near a road, I never saw one while driving, and I suspect that they shied away from human contact. Shepherds found them a nuisance, probably because the troops annoyed their flocks. On one occasion, I stopped and asked a shepherd if he ever saw monkeys. His incredulous response was something along the lines of “Are you kidding? The little sons of bitches are everywhere!” I suppose if you are deep in the forest, and not making much noise, you will see them often. Until near the end of my Peace Corps service, the only wild macaque I ever saw was a dead one, hanging high in a cedar tree. Did it die in a fall, impaled by a branch, was it shot by a hunter for his amusement, or did it simply die of sickness or old age?
In December of 1971, Gaylord Barr and I took two of his lycée students to the Michlifen ski center just for the ride. There had been a heavy snowfall, but the day was bright with deep blue skies and a strong sun.
Snow still lay heavy on the cedar boughs, and glistened while it melted.
Skiers filled the old volcanic crater, and the resort’s concession stand was full of visitors. Despite the snow, the strong sun kept the temperatures mild.
For the students, it was their first opportunity to see people ski, though it was only a short drive from their homes in Sefrou. While the three others enjoyed the sun and drank Cokes, I trudged off through the heavy snow, camera in hand, hoping to find an interesting vantage point for a photo.
As I struggled through the knee-deep snow on the heights above the resort, a small group of monkeys crossed my path. I must have startled them, for they were gone in a flash. I had no chance for a photo, but I was gratified to have finally seen some living individuals in the wild.
In America we usually associate monkeys with warmer climates, but macaques are sometimes found far north of the tropics, notably in Japan, where they take advantage of hot springs.
The monkeys were not the only unwanted animals in the cedar forests. Wild boar were common, and ate many of the same foods as the macaques. The holm oaks that grew in association with the cedars produced an abundance of acorns. The large edible acorns were sometimes harvested and appeared in the Sefrou market, but they were bland and considered a food of last resort. I have never seen a recipe for a Moroccan dish with acorns. The boar relished them, however, as well as the mushrooms and truffles. So did the macaques.
I never wanted to surprise a herd of boar. Unpredictable, large, and armed with wicked tusks, they could be dangerous. And I never saw any, though a friend, Jean-Michel Vrinat, a coopérant doctor in Ouazzane, shot one, and I had a chance to eat the meat, which I thought lean and tasty. I might have been happy living with Astérix and his friends. Moroccans have little use for the boar, since pigs are haram and their meat forbidden. They constitute a much more dangerous nuisance than the macaques, and will attack humans if they are threatened.
Jean-Michel was a real sportsman, and arrived in Morocco to do his service with not only a shotgun, but climbing gear, épées, and God knows what else. He climbed with me in the Toubkal Massif, and was a better climber than I. Regrettably, I lost contact with him, though a mutual friend told me that Jean-Michel married a “Venetian princess” and still practices medicine in his home in the Loire Valley.
My encounters with monkeys were not over. Not very long after the encounter mentioned above, as I was traveling south toward the Ghanaian border from Ouagadougou after my trip across the Sahara, we spotted a troop of baboons fleeing across the Sahel scrublands. There was no opportunity for a photo. Along with flying foxes and gazelles, those baboons were the only exotic animals I saw in that long and meandering trip.
My encounters with macaques were not quite over. In the late 1970s, I lived in Chauen. The high mountains behind the town always beckoned, and I sometimes sought the pleasure of the mountain heights.
In reality, that end of the Rif is not especially high, but there were few trails and the going can be rugged. Most tourists contented themselves by staying within the quaint town to which Raisuni and Franco had given a certain prominence.
With its tiled roofs and blue-colored houses, Chauen has long been a tourist haunt. Its location on the edge of the Rif mountains and its proximity to Tangier, Tetuan, and Ceuta has made it popular with travelers. Just a few years back, the New York Times featured Chauen in a tourism article. Few tourists are aware of the bloody events of the Rif War, and the disastrous retreat by the Spanish army from Chauen in 1924.
The mountains rise steeply and are striking. The lower slopes of the mountains were covered with cork oak forests, the only major ones in Morocco outside of the Mamora, I believe, while the summits held beautiful forests of mature pine and fir, though they were being logged heavily 50 years ago
Like the holm oaks, the cork oaks produced an edible acorn, though few Moroccans seemed to eat them. Nor did Moroccans eat the abundant mushrooms that grew under them.
Knowing that there were monkeys close by, my French friends and I set out one day to try to find a few.
We drove up the road that leads to a high pass behind the city, then scrambled around the accessible crags, and our efforts were rewarded.
Alas, the monkeys had no desire to see us. I took several pictures of them, hopping below us on the rock ledges, and only obtained minuscule dots, indistinguishable and unrecognizable as monkeys. Still, it was a fun day, and we did see some macaques.
Wikipedia has a long article on a Macaca sylvanus if you desire to learn more about this monkey. I wish anyone seeking out those monkeys better luck than I, and, for the monkeys, a fair chance to survive unmolested in an environment that is becoming smaller and more fragmented. I recommend the Wikipedia articles on North African macaques for further reading: English and French.