Well known to travelers on the  main route through the forests of Parc National d’Ifrane in the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco, is an infamous group of Barbary macaques known as the “Tourist Group.”

Macaque, Ifrane National Park, Morocco. (Photo: S. Semple)

    Coaches and cars stop in the car parks and the passengers get out and feed them. Truck drivers throw food out their windows as they pass.

Indeed, not only do the monkeys have no fear of humans, they aggressively badger them for food.

Macaques near Azrou.

Scrounging unhealthy, unnatural food has made many of the adults overweight and altered their natural behaviors .

Macaques near Azrou.

They groom each other less. As grooming in primates is about reinforcing social bonds, the lessening of grooming has led to an increase in aggressive behavior. Grooming also helps maintain a certain level of hygiene, so it’s no surprise they’ve also developed an abnormal parasite burden.

Posing for tourists in Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains.

Cavities. (Photo: Keri Cairns)

Disease. (Photo: Keri Cairns)


Many of the older monkeys have rotten teeth. A number of the troupe show other signs of poor health, such as runny noses—likely due to viruses picked up from contact with humans. As a consequence of their physiological problems, the monkeys are failing to reproduce. Last year only two out of nine adult females successfully carried a pregnancy to term.

Barbary macaque (MPCFdn)

Barbary macaque at Cascades d’Ouzoud, Morocco. (Photo: Barbary Macaque Conservation)

A much larger concern than habituation is the Barbary macaques’ uncertain future as a species.

Formerly widespread throughout North Africa, wild populations today are restricted to small patches of forest and scrub areas in Morocco, Algeria and Gibraltar.

Like the other segmented macaque populations, the Tourist Group is rapidly declining.

The population of wild Barbary macaques in Morocco in 1975 was 17500. Today it is estimated to be only 5000–6000. Since 2008 the Barbary macaque is officially classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List.

To save the monkeys, a dozen years ago a small group of conservationists founded the Moroccan Primate Conservation Foundation (MPC). Recently the MPC has partnered with the Moroccan ministry of Water and Forests and national and international experts to create a national conservation action plan to protect the species.

Djemaa El-Fna square, Morocco.

But, in Morocco, where the selling and use of macaques goes back centuries, changing ancient customs is an uphill slog.

The tradition of having your picture taken with macaques and cobras in Marrakech’s teeming Jemma el Fna square, attracts millions of tourists annually.

Djemaa El-Fna square, Morocco. (Photo: Daniel McBane)

After exhibition this is home.

And it is understandable that issues of animal welfare and conservation are not a priority in a country with so many other more pressing issues. But MPC is trying to make people see that the loss of the Barbary macaque and its important habitat would also have disastrous consequences for the local population, such as accelerating desertification and the loss of an essential fresh water supply for Morocco.

Barbary macaques, Atlas Mtns, Morocco (Photo: Ahmed/Barbary Macaque Conservation)

The chief reason for the species’ decline is the demand for the pet trade which has decimated the population in the Atlas Mountains. The problem is Europe-wide but particularly bad in France and Spain.

Barbary macaques, Atlas Mtns, Morocco (Photo: Ahmed/Barbary Macaque Conservation)


tourist group infant, Azrou, Morocco (Photo: Ben Tutton

Many buyers are Moroccan expatriates who visit their families in Morocco by the thousands every summer. Infant monkeys are on public display in market places in the larger cities of the south and are often an impulse buy for children.

One study puts the number of infants illegally exported from Morocco every year at 300. A recent questionnaire aimed at macaque owners in Catalonia, who wish to re-home their pets, revealed that the majority are Spaniards who bought their monkeys from people traveling from Morocco who smuggled them home in their luggage. There is also an active internet trade in the species