Seeking peace between Gibraltar's famed monkeys and human visitors

A novel effort is underway to protect some of most famous monkeys in the world.

Hundreds of Barbary macaques live on the Gibraltar Peninsula, but the animals are under threat.

The jagged peninsula of Gibraltar, along Spain's southern coast, has been controlled by the British since the 1700s. High above the city, where rock meets cloud, the monkeys rule, reports CBS News' Jonathan Vigliotti.

The endangered Barbary macaque is the only wild monkey in Europe and they're facing off against another set of primates — their human neighbors.

gibraltar-peninsula.jpg

Gibraltar Peninsula

Every day like clockwork, fresh fruit and vegetables are delivered to a remote peak on Gibraltar. The impatient monkeys jump right in.

Dr. Eric Shaw, the founder of Helping Hand Trust, leads the macaque management team that spreads the spoils. The baskets of fruit and vegetables are a peace offering of sorts, a way of curbing the monkeys' cravings for human food.

"They know how to open your car door. They know when they wander down in town and you've left the kitchen window open, they know what a refrigerator is — they know how to pull the handle open and help themselves. They learn very quickly," Shaw said.

To keep the monkeys out of people's refrigerators, his group brings food up to the peak and to other feeding sites in and around the rock. 

monkeys-on-truck-eating-food.jpg

Barbary macaques eat the fresh fruit and vegetables brought to them by Dr. Eric Shaw.

CBS News

But, just like children, monkeys prefer sweets, and they know where to look for treats.

"Believe it or not he was trying to unzip your backpack. This is how clever they are: they know that in backpacks people carry food," Shaw said.

Barbary macaques are professional pickpockets, rummaging through everything from backpacks to plastic bags.

This petty theft is fuelled by years of being illegally fed by visitors. Police turn a blind eye because they're Gibraltar's No. 1 tourist attraction.

While most macaques are friendly, some can be vicious, which is why Shaw's management program is funded by the government and supported by the locals. But controlling wild monkeys isn't always easy.

"I can't send it a text or I don't have a special whistle — if he wants to walk across the roof, he walks across the roof," Shaw said.

Legend has it, as long as the macaques live on the rock, the British will reign. 

monkey-stealing-backpack.jpg

One of the Gibraltar monkeys attempts to steal a backpack. 

Matt Soukup

During World War II, when their population dropped, a superstitious Prime Minister Winston Churchill even ordered some in from Morocco.

"This was a morale boost. This was Britain. This was the gateway to the Mediterranean," Shaw said. "We stand here like a great lion protecting it."

To help protect the animals — and people — Shaw gives each monkey a tracking chip and tattoo along with annual check-ups.

His latest efforts, including the feedings, have helped reduce conflict.

gibraltar-monkey-iwth-flag-in-bg-2.jpg
CBS News

The irony of man feeding animals to keep them wild is not lost on Shaw, who says as the human population grows, conservation must get creative.

"They're the last free-ranging primates in the whole of Europe and they're on the endangered species list. And if we're not careful, they'll disappear off the face of the earth," Shaw said. 

He says his efforts are a win-win for both conservation and folklore.