Barbary Macaques: Wrongly Accused?

Threatened by erosion, desertification, overgrazing and global warming, cedar forests in the Moroccan Middle Atlas Mountains are going through a hard time. But what if an animal species that has inhabited the area for centuries is also a threat?

The Moroccan government accuses native Barbary Macaques of killing too many cedar trees, but activists say the monkeys are scapegoats.©Olivier Asselin

In various regions of the Middle Atlas, the damage caused by Barbary macaques scars the landscape. The animal—a species endemic to parts of Morocco and Algeria—feeds by stripping bark off at the top of cedar trees, impeding further growth of adult trees or causing death in younger ones. "The attack is not widespread, but causes a lot of damage in certain areas," explains Mohammed Tigma, forestry engineer with the Moroccan ministry of Water and Forests. "It somewhat renders obsolete our efforts to regenerate the forest," he adds.

The monkeys" behavior isn’t recent—it was observed as early as the 1940s—but it has become common enough over the past 15 years to attract the scientific community’s attention.

For Professor Andrea Camperio, primatologist at Italy’s University of Padova, the Barbary macaque is a victim—not the cause—of the cedar forests" degradation. "Barbary macaques are an indicator [of the ecosystem’s health], and are just one of the many species threatened," he says. Camperio, who has been studying monkey populations in Morocco for more than 10 years, says the mammals feed on the water-rich bark of cedar trees because other water sources are not available.

Sheep and goat herders who inhabit the area have become increasingly sedentary over the years, and now live near the region’s few natural sources of water. "[The shepherds] have taken over the water points, and monkeys can’t get to them anymore," explains Ali Aghnaj, project coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Morocco.

The livestock population feeding inside Ifrane Natural Park (one of the areas hardest hit by the water crisis) is estimated at 800,000 animals: nearly four times more than the quotas established by Moroccan authorities.

Tigma says the law that would impose limits on herd sizes or grazing areas is in effect, but was never enforced. He agrees that overgrazing has become a problem, but argues that an increase in the Barbary macaque population is threatening cedar forests.

Camperio says he’s not convinced by the government’s arguments. "If you look along the roads, like they do, you"ll see more monkeys, because they are hungry and they come out looking for food," he explains. "But if you go into the forest, like we did, what you"ll see from one year to the next is fewer and fewer monkeys."