I arrived in the north of Morocco in 2004 not knowing if the few Barbary macaques that occurred in the early 1980 still clung on in the Rif mountains. It quickly became plain why other primatologists had not attempted to work with the species in this area for more than 20 years despite it being on Europe’s doorstep. The Rif is spectacular and home to diverse forests of oak, fir and cedar but the mountains are also remote, rocky and extremely steep sometimes forcing us to climb them on our hands and knees! In addition the macaques were persecuted by people so fled every time they saw us and before we could count them.
In 2010 we did the first big survey of all the macaque groups in Morocco. Back then, we didn’t have a vehicle so we walked everywhere – not only was this time consuming we couldn’t cover the distance necessary to cover the whole area. Due to lack of time we didn’t reach all the really remote areas but we discovered that there were many more macaques in the north of Morocco than scientists previously thought ~1500 in the oak forest of Bouhachem alone.
Last year we started our 2nd big survey. We are currently working very hard in the remote mountains of Bouhachem hoping to finish this huge survey. Now we are trying to count each group and locate others we haven’t yet documented which is why the survey has taken us so long. The work is difficult as the macaques are very elusive, frequenting rocky steep, forested slopes and steep vegetated canyons. They are still found in these mountains because the mountains themselves are uninhabitable. I have always liked a challenge and collecting data on the macaques living in this habitat has been very physically challenging from day one.
This time, however, with our trusty Funky Monkey Bus II, we find old tracks once built by the Spanish when they occupied this part of Morocco and exploited Bouhachem for its timber. These tracks take us deeper into the mountains and we camp in remote places. Me and my team, Ahmed, Mohamed and Ahmed, get up before the dawn, eat our breakfast and set off each with their own route to try and find the group we know occurs in the area we are surveying. When we find a group of macaques and manage to get some kind of count – even if it is only five individuals – we are all elated. It might mean we have to crouch in uncomfortable positions for an hour or more but if it means we get a result the discomfort doesn’t register. We hope that camera traps will help us determine the numbers of the groups living in steep sided rocky canyons as it is difficult to get a good idea of group size when we can only see a few group members among the thick vegetation growing in the canyon walls.