By Meredith – Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 23rd March 2022: There is a myth that an impish family got lost in the forest and ran out of food. They were invited for lunch following Friday prayers by a charitable family. During the meal, the family grew bored and started rolling balls of couscous and throwing them at each other. God was so angry that he punished the family by turning them into macaque monkeys to roam the Rif mountains.
Many tourists are surprised to come across monkeys while traveling through Morocco. Some are either enchanted or horrified by the dressed-up monkeys on parade in El Jamaa Square and other souks throughout Morocco. For a few Dirhams, tourists can have their photos taken with these adorable dressed-up monkeys. Others are luckier to come across monkeys while hiking or visiting different natural areas, particularly the cedar forests of Azrou.
These tail-less monkeys, called Barbary macaques, are the only African monkeys that live north of the Sahara, and the only macaques occurring outside Asia. They’re also only one of the few monkey species to dwell in a cold climate. Originally these macaques would have been found throughout North Africa and parts of Europe. However, the populations have declined rapidly to an estimated 5000 individuals, restricted to the mountains of Algeria and Morocco. A small (~200) semi-wild population also exists in Gibraltar.
In 2016 the Barbary macaque was listed as a species threatened with extinction on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Some efforts have since been put in place to protect the remaining populations including a census, public education, and prohibition of illegal trade. Conservation officials are requesting that the monkeys are not fed as they are becoming too habituated to humans and are suffering from obesity and fertility problems. For more information read the News24 article and the Morocco Primate Conservation Trust.
For those interested in seeing Barbary macaques while holidaying in Morocco the largest populations are found in the small village of Azrou in the Middle Atlas Mountains. About an hour’s drive from Fez, Azrou is a tranquil, retreat from the busy city and a potential stop on the way to the desert. The macaques are habituated to people and are often seen alongside the roads of Cedar Gouraud and Moudmame. The cedar forests are also spectacular during the snow in winter and local families will often come to the surrounding areas to visit the monkeys, play in the snow, and snowboard on the hills. Vendors sell nuts to locals and tourists who love to feed the macaques. Be careful though these cheeky monkeys may steal food straight from your hands, so protect your lunch if you plan on spending some time with them.
Smaller troops are also found in the blue city of Chefchaouen near the river and at the Ouzoud Waterfalls, a two-hour trip from Marrakech. The waterfall is the highest in North Africa (110 m) and a lovely spot for lunch, hiking, and a refreshing swim to escape the heat. Desert Morocco Adventures offers day trips to the Ouzoud Waterfalls and trips from Fes to the beautiful blue city.
We recommend that you be responsible tourists and not encourage the exploitation of these human-like animals in the medinas. But rather extend your stay in Morocco to enable more time to explore the Middle Atlas – where you will be rewarded by the quiet villages and more authentic Berber life. A good option would be to include a trip from Marrakech to Fes or vice versa through Merzouga to spend a night in a traditional desert camp. Stopping along the roads to photograph the monkeys will be the icing of this magical desert experience. For more information on the standard Erg Chebbi tours, please click here.