A combination of measures to ensure macaque welfare including increased patrols, CCTV, signage, and further training for tour operators is being considered by the Department of Environment, after the GHA has logged 51 bites to humans this year.
Gibraltar’s macaques are not aggressive by nature, but negative human interactions affect the welfare of the wild animals, with education and sensitivity to their natural habitat at the core of the issue.
Increased tourism after years of slump due to the Covid-19 pandemic and reports of some guides encouraging negative interactions have exacerbated the issue.
Vet Mark Pizarro and Senior Environment Officer Stephen Warr told the Chronicle the macaque management team has already implemented some measures in a bid to safeguard Gibraltar’s iconic macaques.
“We're looking at a combination of measures [such as] increasing patrols,” Mr Warr said.
“We've got one dedicated wildlife warden and that has been a significant improvement because he's exclusively dedicated to the Upper Rock.”
“But we also are looking at installing a network of CCTV cameras as well.”
“That's already started. You've probably seen some of the cameras, wireless cameras spring up in the Upper Rock and the intention is to roll that out.”
Despite the introduction of speed bumps in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and its closure to traffic at night, four juvenile macaques have been run over by vehicles this year.
One was run over by a taxi and the other vehicles are unknown.
There have also been two fines for illegally feeding the macaques, which were issued as fixed penalty notices.
“We want to move away from it,” Mr Warr said.
“All our teams are briefed if we do spot that type of behavior, to report it to us and we will actively engage the operator and we have even found operators this year for illegal feeding.”
CCTV will also allow to team to catch people who are illegal feeding macaques and also those driving at night in the Nature Reserve without permission.
The team is looking to introduce new signage and work with tour operators to ensure negative interactions are curbed.
“We want to expand some of the initiatives that are currently being rolled out and I think more than anything, it's increasing the amount of interaction and education and awareness with tour operators… because that's the key really,” Mr Warr said.
“When I say tour operators, I mean taxi drivers and also private tour operators and that's exactly what we are going to be rolling out.”
“We're also going to be refreshing or revamping all the signage that has been used with regards to the Macaques in Main Street and different other areas which are as low as Main Street.”
Mr Pizarro described engaging with some tour operators has sometimes been difficult, with macaques even taught tricks by some in exchange for treats.
“In some areas we just don't seem to move forward,” he said.
He described how some monkeys are trained by tour operators to do tricks, like jump on a tourist.
At first, a juvenile macaque taught a trick for treats may seem like a fun interaction, until they grow up.
“But what happens then?” Mr Pizarro.
“That's why things are not going forward, what happens to that monkey?”
“The monkey being two, three years old, becomes a four, five, six-year-old male, which are close on 20 kilos.”
“And then you have a different ballgame altogether.”
“Then they've taught these monkeys to open car doors... and then they complain because the monkeys get in the car.”
“The problem has been started in the first place by training a young two, three old cute monkey, which two, three years later is no longer that cute because he's got teeth, and you don't really want that on tours.”
Mr Warr said this is exactly the type of behaviour they are engaging with tour operators to avoid as macaques are very difficult to untrain.
Due to training like this the macaque becomes aggressive and becomes a threat to the public.
Mr Warr recognised that there are some tour operators that are providing a positive and sustainable service.
“It's important to recognise the work that's been done by Monkey Talk, which is in line with the objectives of the department of the type of tourism that we want to showcase in Gibraltar, a much more sustainable way of showcasing a macaque,” he said.
Mr Warr said Gibraltar is moving away from the image of associating the macaques with a selfie.
He said they should be seen as wild animals and not pets that people can interact with.
“The whole aspect of seeing the macaques in a more sustainable manner is crucial for our tourist product moving forward,” Mr Warr said.
He added the department is looking at expanding training for tour operators and provide more information on natural roaming behaviours.
Also, visitors are more aware of how to interact with wild animals and are reporting tour operators who infringe the rules.
“At the end of day, what we're trying to do all the time is trying to improve the visitor experience,” Mr Warr said.
The issue of illegally feeding macaques is nothing new and Mr Warr described how the first fortress order prohibiting feeding of the macaques dating back to 1910.
“So we're talking about a problem which is over 100 years old and we're still talking about to this day,” he said.
The macaques are fed a diet of fruits, vegetables, and grain by Mr Pizarro’s team.
“The macaques are clever,” Mr Warr said.
“They know that if you're going to be passing around and you have a Mars bar or Twix, the calorific value of that snack is much higher than the natural food.”
He added macaque interactions are a focus of study in Gibraltar and abroad.
“We have interest from a number of institutions and universities who have carried out working in Gibraltar before, like Notre Dame University, for example,” he said.
“They did a lot of research not only in looking at interaction, but also in troop movements.”
The department plans to expand on this too and continue research.
“It's not just about responding to reactive issues and controlling population numbers,” he said.
“There's also an important sort of scientific research element to them.”
With around 15 births in the past year, the low number of births is due to the sterilisation programme to control the population, which was introduced in 2016.
“A few years ago, we used to have up to between 35 and 50 births in a year,” Mr Pizarro said.
“So therefore the decrease in birth rate has led to only one or two macaques being born per pack per year on average.”
Reducing the number of macaques born means no monkeys need to be culled or transferred out of Gibraltar.
“This year we probably won't be doing any sterilisation of females this year because we've had 14/15 [births],” he said.
“We don't really want to decrease birth rate less than that because then you lose your natural behavior within the pack because babies are integral parts of the natural interactions in a group. You take that away, then you messing about.”
The programme is continuously monitored and Mr Pizarro assesses the pack dynamics before sterilising any macaque.
This is because if a female macaque has never had a baby the pack will push her to one side, which would encourage her to find another pack to form a splinter pack.
Macaques can produce a baby once a year for 20 to 25 years and live up to 30 years old due to the care afforded to them and no natural predators.
“You can't have 50 births a year, which is what we used to have in the 90s,” Mr Pizarro said.
There are currently around 200 macaques in Gibraltar, split between seven packs, and none are being culled due to the success of the sterlisation programme.