Monkeys of Morocco

Playful yet contemplative, fierce yet shy, beloved yet threatened, Barbary macaques are monkeys of distinction.

This story appears in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Barbary macaque is a monkey of many distinctions. It is the only primate, other than humans, north of the Sahara on the African continent, and it’s the only macaque living outside of Asia. Other macaque species once ranged from East Asia to northwest Africa; only the Barbary macaque weathered ecological changes to hold on in Africa.

But it’s not just geography that makes this monkey stand out. With thick ginger fur and intelligent eyes, the toddler-size, tailless macaques have long been coveted—and captured—by passing travelers. Skeletal remains of macaques have been discovered in the ashes of Pompeii, deep within an ancient Egyptian catacomb, and buried beneath an Irish hilltop where the Bronze Age kings of Ulster once held court.

These days the Barbary macaque’s range has dwindled to pockets of forest in Morocco and Algeria, with a semiwild population in Gibraltar. Unfortunately macaques still tempt visitors. Conservationists estimate that smugglers take some 300 infants out of Morocco each year for the growing European pet trade—crippling the population’s sustainability. As few as 6,000 of the endangered monkeys remain—with between 4,000 and 5,000 in Morocco.

Photographer Francisco Mingorance spent more than a year taking pictures ofMacaca sylvanus high in the Middle Atlas mountains, home to one of the largest Barbary macaque populations. “The love with which they treat their young is almost human,” he says. “One mother held her dead child in her arms for four days. This affected me deeply.”

Unlike most primates, Barbary macaque males often tote babies around, says Bonaventura Majolo, founder of the Barbary Macaque Project, an ongoing study of the species that began in 2008. They use the infants to establish friendly relations with other males. Majolo calls it a “sandwich interaction.” A male will set an infant between himself and another male, and the adults will sometimes groom each other and also attend to the baby.

Males brave many dangers to protect the young. “Some macaques are really scared of people,” says Siân Waters of Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation. But when she and her colleagues return a lost or stolen baby, “the males come within a few meters. They are so stimulated by the sight of an infant that they lose all fear.”