The ‘Med Steps’ have arguably never been more popular, with hundreds making short work of them, mainly in the evenings, as part of their weekly exercise routine. These days there are two macaque troops whose territories encompass
areas of the Med Steps footpath. 

Whilst not wanting to sound alarmist, neither discourage anyone from walking what is the Upper Rock’s most scenic and dramatic footpath by some distance, I would advise Mediterranean Steps walkers to exercise caution and to embark on their walk in the knowledge that, unlike in previous years, there is now a high probability of encountering macaques along certain areas. Walkers should be aware that bumping into macaques on a narrow, at times steep, winding, and relatively secluded footpath, is not the same as coming across them on the roadside or at Apes Den, and the macaques can exhibit some territoriality if felt threatened or startled.

The Human v macaque interface at Med steps is very different to a traditional tourist/macaque hotspot such as Apes Den and because of this, humans and macaques can get in each other’s way more easily at the former!
Levant Battery and stretch just past the bend where the Lathbury Barracks Troop are likely to be encountered.

The following points hope to provide practical advice that should equip you with sufficient know-how to minimise any potential risks.

  • Luckily, one is not likely to encounter macaques throughout the entire course of Med Steps, but rather in distinct areas where the macaques tend to congregate. The first area you are likely to come across macaques, assuming one is climbing the steps from Jews Gate to O’Hara’s Battery, is along the stretch past the bend above Levant Battery. This is where the Royal Anglian Way splinter pack (also known as the Lathbury Barracks Troop) can be found. This troop spends most of the day much further down the cliff face in and around the refuse tip but tend to roost and forage beneath Levant Battery in the evening.
  • The next hotspot for macaques is past Goat’s Hair Twin Caves as one approaches the area of the old Pumping Station and the small tunnel. The macaques found here belong to another sub-group which has splintered off from the Prince Philips’ Arch Troop.
  • The Prince Philip’s Splinter group’s territory ranges all the way up the cliff face to O’Hara’s Battery and along the ridge north to Spy Glass Battery, so these are the ones that are normally seen at the top of the Med Steps. The troop is further composed of 2 adult males which emigrated from the Royal Anglian Way Troop, photographed here at O’Hara’s looking rather scruffy during their annual moulting phase. (Please note that once the new coat grows fully their appearance will change dramatically and they will look all together far more impressive.)
  • Sometimes one might come across clear, unequivocal evidence of macaque activity. Learning how to recognise these tell-tale signs might help you prepare for the presence of macaques so that they might not catch you by surprise. Macaque faeces can be easily identified as they tend to be peppered with remains of indigested seeds/grain and other plant matter. They are also usually deposited on parapet walls or rocks, i.e. not on the ground, so cannot be mistaken with dog faeces, for example. Slightly less common but equally as telling are small areas of disturbed soil or dug up holes next to the footpath where the macaques have been foraging in. One can be almost certain that a macaque has dug them up if there are remains of the cusps of seeds, which the macaques expertly peel with their tongues and discard.

    At the top of Med Steps by O’Hara’s Battery where the Prince Philip’s Splinter Troop is more likely to be encountered and whose members include the 2 migrant adult males originally from the Royal Anglian Way Troop.
  • Having established where along Med Steps one is more likely to encounter macaques, we now need to understand how they might react to us. For this it is essential to understand the difference between a) seeing macaques at a traditional tourist hotspot – often a relatively wide-open space, usually by the roadside, where the macaques have come to expect a certain type of encounter with humans, often involving some attention and in some instances a reward in the form of a treat and b) bumping into them on the Med StepsClearly both these human v macaque interfaces are very different, not least because Med Steps users have not gone to Med Steps with the intention of going to see the macaques, but also crucially neither have the macaques set out to ‘socialise’ with humans here but rather can often be found foraging or even ‘chilling’ in these secluded areas.
    Learning to recognise macaque activity can alert you to their likely presence before coming across them. Above: disturbed soil where the macaques have been digging up seeds. One can usually find cusps of seeds discarded by the macaques (next to arrow). Below: typical macaque faeces peppered with remains of seeds.

    Let’s just say then that human v macaque encounters in secluded areas such as Med Steps, in which neither humans nor macaques stand to necessarily benefit from, have the potential to go wrong. Think of it as both of us getting in each other’s way! The fact that Med Steps is a narrow footpath further aggravates the sense of getting in each other’s way particularly if the macaques are on or directly next to the path. 

    In order to prevent the macaques reacting in a threatening manner towards us it is imperative that one tries to give them as much notice so as not to startle them. One should therefore make it a point of announcing themselves in a confident but non-threatening manner so as to give the macaques as much notice of what you are about to do (namely pass by them) before you actually get to do it. I find that coughing assertively various times as you continue to approach them usually works.

  • One golden rule is never to enter an encounter with a macaque (proceed to walk closely past it) which you don’t feel sufficiently confident you can win; and by this I mean accomplish without reacting to it sheepishly or worse still, having to backtrack from at the last minute. In other words, if you decide to go past a macaque, do so assertively. If you show the macaques unnecessary fear or hesitate, chances are they will end up threatening you or in the very least confront you, i.e. you will attract them on to you.In instances when you are not confident enough, such as when a macaque might be on the footpath monopolising the available space, you are much better off buying some time surreptitiously – and I must stress it absolutely has to be done in a way that it is not obvious to the macaque that you have hesitated going past it, otherwise it will not work. This can be achieved by pretending something else has caught your attention and you have decided not to go past it at that moment. Please note that whilst this may sound strange we do this all the time without realising in similar social situations when we are hesitant about something and we resort to things like casually fidgeting with our smart phones, yawning, scratching etc. These sorts of behaviours are collectively called self-directed behaviours.
    Area around the Pumping Station and Med Steps Tunnel where the Prince Philip’s Splinter Troop can be found within the lower reaches of its territory.

    Throughout all of this remember, the next best thing to losing an encounter is not to get into one in the first place. If you are patient enough the macaque will, in its own time, move out of the path almost to ‘accommodate’ you after which you may pass, hopefully without an incident.

  • So what does an ‘inconvenienced’ macaque look like?When threatened, macaques will give a warning gesture which resembles a pouted mouth. This is known as the Round Mouth Threat (RMT) in which the macaque will look you straight in the eye with raised eyebrows to gain your attention. The gesture is usually silent, but for the occasional ‘pant’ and could loosely be translated to ‘stop’, ‘don’t’, ‘or else’; in other words, don’t stop and there will be consequences!
    During times when macaques are on the footpath itself, one is better off buying some time and only make a concerted effort to walk past it without hesitating once the macaque has had time to ‘accommodate’ you.

    The tone of the threat can be intensified by the morphology of the gesture and by leaning into the ‘offender’ if the macaque feels sufficiently aggrieved. If a macaque directs a RMT at you, you should stop making any further advances, and look down, but under no circumstances turn your back to it at that point and panic. If you do, chances are the macaque will charge at you and could end up biting. The idea is to try and diffuse the situation. Eventually the macaque should feel reassured and will stop displaying its threat gesture and calm down.

    Macaques are likely to feel threatened and resort to react in a defensive manner when one makes direct eye contact with them. If you stop to think about it, making eye contact with a macaque can be compared to making eye contact with a complete stranger. Generally speaking I can only think of a handful of situations in which this might happen:

    – There is an attraction (so in a flirtatious way, you want them to notice you).

    – You don’t trust someone so you can’t take your eyes off them.

    – You might feel sufficiently curious about someone to the point that you may stare in a disrespectful manner until you inevitably lock eyes with them.

In the case of making eye contact with a macaque, it is unlikely to be the first. The other 2 scenarios will likely provoke a negative reaction from the stranger and/or in this case the macaque. So whilst one can look at them it is not advisable to make eye contact for the simple reason that we are strangers and this will provoke reaction from them usually a defensive one.

Also, macaques may feel threatened if startled. The nature of the terrain, with so many ‘blind corners’ gives rise to plenty of opportunities in which to startle unsuspecting macaques. It therefore pays off to try and announce oneself by coughing assertively coming up to blind spots particularly within the 3 main areas identified earlier in which macaque are more likely to be encountered so as to give any would-be macaques as much warning as possible.

Learning to recognise some important macaque facial gestures. Left: Round Mouth Threat which loosely means ‘stop’, ‘don’t’, ‘or else’. Right: Fear Grin usually performed by subordinate individuals when overwhelmed but which can then go on to emit an alarm call to recruit other macaques.

Another reaction that a macaque can have when being startled is a ‘fear grin’, which involves baring their teeth with jaws locked in a closed position and lips retracted so that the front teeth are fully exposed. Please note this is not to be confused with teeth chattering which is usually an affiliative greeting. The fear grin is often displayed out of fear usually in response to being startled. Because it could be described as a submissive gesture, there are certain individuals which are more likely to display this behavioural gesture such as females and juveniles, usually if they find themselves relatively isolated.

Even though this gesture in itself is not threatening, the fear grin might then be followed by the macaque being displaced by you and then raising the alarm, calling for back up so again it pays off not to intentionally startle or surprise macaques disrespectfully.

Brian Gomila, Master of Research in Primatology, manages the page Monkey Talk. Visit facebook.com/MonkeyTalkGibraltar for more information.