After a twelve-hour journey to cross the strait to Morocco on one of the windiest days in April, AWCP’s Manager, Jess Leaper and Steve Bryant, arrived in Martil, the windswept coastal town that serves as temporary home to BMAC Director Sian Waters and Researcher Lucy Radford.
The actual BMAC Research and Education Centre is found deep in the valleys of Bouhachem, 60km southwest of Martil and is where we were to spend the second night of our trip.
The journey up to the research site began the next morning after a hearty brunch in Martil. The main aim of our trip was to locate some of the wild macaque groups in the Bouhachem area that the BMAC team have been studying for a few years now.
Sian and her team generally spend three months in Morocco in spring and again in autumn, trawling the stunning Atlas Mountains for the elusive Barbary macaques. ‘Elusive’ might seem a strange term for the Barbary macaques, given the gregarious nature of the monkeys in Gibraltar, but wild Barbary macaques are naturally fearful, most probably due to persistent persecution by humans.
Poaching, loss of habitat and the illegal pet trade has led to a drastic decline in numbers of the macaques in recent years and there are now only a few fragmented groups found in these mountains. The good news is, the BMAC team have recently discovered new, unhabituated groups high up in the mountains beyond. Sian Waters, BMAC founder and Director explains: ‘The difficulty is these macaques are in largely inaccessible areas. Luckily, our local researchers Mohammed and Ahmed know the area well and are sometimes able to creep up on the macaques close enough to get a count, but it is almost impossible to fully research at this point.’ This fear of humans is perhaps why these groups are as yet untouched by poaching and the other evils inflicted on macaques across Morocco.
We travelled from Martil through Tetouan and up towards Bouhachem in the Monkey Bus; the faithful 4×4 chariot of the BMAC team, skilfully navigated by Ahmed Al Harred, Deputy Director of BMAC, driver, researcher, chef and maker of the best coffee and mint tea in Morocco. Ahmed seemed to know everyone on the way up through Tetouan to Bouhachem, from police to peasant, he was greeted warmly.
One of the important differences between BMAC and other conservation groups is that they work closely with the local community; forging strong, mutually beneficial relationships. It is not all focused directly on the macaques but all their efforts pay back in one way or another. Rabies vaccination schemes, community football matches, educational outreach, all indirectly positively affect the macaques’ welfare and future prospects. ‘If the locals don’t care about the macaques, why would they make any effort to change their ways, but if they see positive benefits for themselves then they are more likely to feel positively towards the macaques or at least what we are trying to achieve’, explains Sian in her soft south Wales lilt.
As the daylight began to wane and we bounced around on unrelenting rough mountain tracks, we began to think we might not ever see an actual macaque. The habitat in the area is perfectly suited to camouflage them; stumps of trees laden with soft golden moss catch the sunlight and trick the eye. Eventually, Sian signalled and the Monkey Bus gently slowed to a stop, she gestured towards the road ahead and sure enough, we were finally rewarded with our first glimpse of wild macaques. A couple of young, light blonde female macaques crossed the road in front of us and disappeared silently into the forest. Ahmed rolled the vehicle forwards to gain a vantage point down into the oak forest. Some more females had paused in the sunlight to forage through the oak leaves or to groom and some youngsters played.
This group were regularly spotted by the team as this was their usual route up the mountain to their sleeping site on the cliffs above. None of the group seemed in any rush, once they had deduced we were not a risk. ‘We are more likely to spot the macaques from the vehicle’, Sian explained. ‘On foot, the macaques would usually just run away from sight’. With the crunchy dry oak leaves on the forest floor, it was nigh on impossible to be stealthy, even the macaques, as light-footed as they were, could be heard tramping through this dry litter.
Most wild macaques groups in this area are around 60 individuals, with a mostly even male to female ratio but ‘this group for some reason has an abundance of females’, Sian commented.
As we quietly watched these gentle creatures playing and grooming casually in the last beams of daylight, Sian and Ahmed discussed in their own dialect, a mixture of Arabic, English and Spanish, making notes, identifying gender and approximate ages. Having carried out research myself on the Gibraltar macaques, I realised what a huge task Sian and her team had on their hands. In Gibraltar, most individuals are marked with a tattoo and each individual and group is documented after years of research. With over 20 groups averaging 60 individuals in their study area, increasingly inaccessible areas and the shy nature of the animals, the task seems quite overwhelming. This does not faze the BMAC team. The most important thing is that these groups are noted and protected. In fact, from BMAC’s point of view, the less habituated the groups are, the better it is for their future prospects.
The research and education centre for BMAC is found deep in the valleys of Bouhachem, down some of the rockiest tracks imaginable. At the start of the 1km track, we were greeted by one of the teams many rescue dogs, Bruno, a handsome cross-breed who eagerly egged us on through the rocky terrain, stopping periodically to leave his mark or chase off shepherd dogs along the way.
We arrived, rattled, tired and hungry as the sun was about to disappear behind spectacular mountain backdrop. Enough time for us to survey the area and the centre. The centre is nearly complete, and has plenty of scope for the Education service it will eventually fulfil. All the work has been carried out by the team and has taken a couple of years to be habitable, though electricity is still a dream, they do have a well for fresh water.
They also plan to build a rehabilitation unit for confiscated macaques, a project the AWCP team hope to assist with. Currently, any confiscations that are passed to BMAC pose quite a problem. Without facilities like this, rehabilitation can be almost impossible. Despite this, BMAC have returned individuals successfully back to the wild. Their survival in the wild can depend on how long it has been since their capture. The centre will allow for soft-rehabilitation and also possibly the formation of groups of confiscated macaques for release.
After a surprisingly comfortable night at the centre and an excellent candle-lit feast and filling breakfast prepared by Ahmed, we reluctantly packed the Monkey Bus to begin our journey home. But first, we had the pleasure of meeting some more of the BMAC team en-route. Ahmed Chetwan was a shepherd in the area and has supported BMAC since 2009, playing a key role in persuading the young shepherds to refrain from persecuting the macaques. He has recently been employed full-time as Project Assistant. Mohamed Chitwin has a great knowledge of and an obvious passion for the macaques. He too now works as Project Assistant. Both clearly love their work and are as dedicated as the rest of the team to the macaques of this region and to the project.
It was an exhausting but exhilarating trip that rewarded us with not only our first sightings of wild Barbary macaques but also an insight into the fascinating work BMAC carry out; not only researching the macaques but also the important awareness building and community work they carry out in this area of Morocco.
words | Jessica Leaper, AWGP