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Saving the Barbary Macaque: An interview with Dr. Sian Waters

  • The Barbary macaque is North Africa’s only primate; threatened by tourism, animal trafficking, cannabis cultivation and hunting.
  • Dr. Sian Waters was amazed to learn that this primate, so close to Europe, was unstudied and lacked any effort to conserve it.
  • She has developed a highly effective conservation program built on gaining the trust and support of the local community.

North Africa may not spring to mind as the home of an ape population, but the Barbary Macaque (Macaca sylvanus) still dwells there.

The only remaining primate north of the Sahara, the species once occupied the entirety of the northern tip of Africa. It now hangs on in isolated parts of Morocco and Algeria, while another small, introduced population lives in Gibraltar.

Classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), M. sylvanus is threatened in the wild on all sides, by a loss of habitat developed for tourism, by local and international wildlife trafficking, hunting, and even cannabis cultivation.

A macaque looks around, alert for passing cars and people, while grazing in a grassy clearing on the outskirts of Bouhachem Forest. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Dr. Sian Waters, executive director and founder of Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation (BMAC), has studied this forgotten population for the last decade.

“It seemed impossible to me that there were no primatologists studying a primate in its natural habitat occurring so close to Europe, but that was indeed the case,” she said in an interview with Mongabay (read in full below).

Dr. Waters started BMAC in 2009, when she determined that local negative views of the macaque were contributing to their perilous decline. “Our main problem is being taken seriously at all levels of Moroccan society,” explained Waters. “Macaques are objects of derision, and trying to discuss them with groups of shepherds initially led to much amusement and mockery.”

She realized that her conservation group would be most effective if it began simply by having a conversation with local people — working directly with Moroccans to understand their perspectives, and then slowly trying to change those views. Her work makes extensive use of ethnographic data gained while talking to locals — a process that cultivates connections and friendships and overcomes the uneasiness that often arises between conservationists and communities.

A macaque’s eye view of Sian, Lucy and Kenza as they scan the forest for signs of monkey life. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

“I spent time getting to know shepherds and building trust — chatting to them rather than formally interviewing them, and noting what they said,” Waters said.

BMAC also crafted programs to address issues important to, and directly impacting, local people. Those programs include a rabies vaccination project for their dogs, making macaque masks with children, and sponsoring football tournaments for the men — all of which in turn helped the macaques.

Now in its sixth year, BMAC plans to open a research and education facility that will welcome people from all over Morocco. Dr. Waters sees hope for the future of the macaque, noting that “the Moroccan public enjoys learning about Barbary macaques. Together, with the burgeoning animal welfare movement in Morocco, we believe that public opinion will eventually make the commercial exploitation of macaques and other wildlife socially unacceptable.”


Sian Waters working in the field. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: You’ve worked with all kinds of animals around the world; such as white faced Sakis, black bears, swift foxes and tapirs. What drew you to Morocco and Barbary macaques?

Sian Waters: By 2003, I had become more interested in the human dimension of conservation, and was particularly interested in human-wildlife conflict. I was looking for a possible project site in Africa, and while reading the Action Plan for Africa Primates, I noticed that very little work was being carried out on the conservation status of the Barbary macaque. A plan recommended research on human-macaque conflicts over the species’ crop raiding behavior.

It seemed impossible to me that there were no primatologists studying a primate in its natural habitat occurring so close to Europe, but that was indeed the case. My research was the first to try to quantify the extent of the conflict between people and the macaques and only the second investigation of the populations in the north of Morocco.

Mongabay: You’ve run BMAC for several years while also studying for your PhD. With this busy schedule how do you stay motivated?

Sian Waters: I am very determined and very stubborn, and I am also 100% convinced that my team and I are making a difference because I see the results. It would be hard to remain motivated if we didn’t see even a small amount of progress every week.

Sian draws water from the newly-constructed well at the site of the almost-completed conservation and education centre. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: Compared to when you first arrived in Morocco back in 2004, how are macaque populations faring?

Sian Waters: The population in the area where I conducted my PhD research is doing well. However, there are pressures on the other main macaque population due to cannabis cultivation. Farmers want to cultivate as much of this cash crop as possible and in their desire to do so cut down the forest and plough even very steep mountain slopes. This causes serious erosion and the cannabis plant they cultivate also requires a lot of water, which is problematic during the summer months when rain is very infrequent. Thus macaque groups get squeezed higher up the mountains where they are more likely to be affected by climatic factors.

Mongabay: What have been the main challenges for BMAC?

Sian Waters: Apart from trying to obtain funding for a very bland colored macaque, our main problem is being taken seriously at all levels of Moroccan society. The macaques are objects of derision, and trying to discuss them with groups of shepherds initially led to much amusement and mockery of the macaques and one another. This was also the reaction amongst city dwellers.

We persisted, however, and now it is commonplace to discuss macaques seriously with groups of shepherds and with interested people in the cities. We now get a lot of information and inquiries from the Moroccan public about how they can help. However, there will always be those who find primates funny everywhere.

BMAC team talking with local shepherds. Waters focussed her approach on building trust and dialogue among local people, listening to their concerns and shaping the BMAC operations accordingly . Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: Macaques face many dangers: illegal trafficking, habitat destruction, human conflict; what is the primary threat in your opinion?

Sian Waters: In the north, the main threat is development for tourism without thought for the environment. However, for the largest population in the Middle Atlas Mountains, the biggest threat is the illegal trade in Barbary macaques, much of which is inspired by lack of awareness among the Moroccan public about the conservation and welfare ramifications of keeping a macaque as a pet. The open exploitation of macaques in places such as Jmaa El-Fnaa Square in Marrakech is tolerated by the authorities because of the importance of tourism revenue in the country.

Mongabay: Is the wildlife trade primarily a local or an international issue?

Sian Waters: It is an international issue with many Barbary macaques smuggled to Europe every year — either bought by tourists as pets or carried by organized criminals. Most of these macaques end up in primate rescue centers in Europe. Tortoises are also smuggled through in huge numbers, and we have recently become aware that tourists are being offered Fennec foxes for sale in the Sahara and that these are also being smuggled into Europe.

Mongabay: You’ve previously noted the benefits, and dangers, of social media when tackling trafficking (see citations at the end of this article). How effective have you found social media to be as a conservation strategy in Morocco?

Sian Waters: There is a general lack of awareness among Moroccans regarding wildlife conservation. Even when they would like to act they have no idea whom to contact when they see an illegally held macaque. BMAC’s Facebook page provides people with a way to contact us to report an illegally held macaque.

We then act as an intermediary, reporting the macaque to the authorities responsible for enforcing the wildlife laws. This way the person reporting the macaque is able to remain anonymous if they wish.

A recent incident involved nightclubs in Casablanca, which intended to use live wild animals for a circus night. Thanks to information from animal welfare activists, we were able to act… informing the authorities, and informing the nightclubs that what they intended to do was illegal. Needless to say they immediately changed their plans.

A female Barbary macaque sits on a rock in Talassemtane National Park. The BMAC team were able to identify several groups in the park and surrounding areas during their survey from Autumn 2014 – Spring 2015. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: You use ethnographic data as the backbone for constructing your community programs. What does this entail?

Sian Waters: Collecting ethnographic data meant immersing myself in the environment of the people I was studying. With my Moroccan assistant, I spent time getting to know shepherds and building trust — chatting to them rather than formally interviewing them, and noting what they said.

This technique gave the shepherd control over how long he wanted or could spend talking to us. Instead of being hypothesis driven, theory emerges from the data so when interviews are transcribed, common themes are noted. I then interpreted the data after lots of reading and discussion, which is, of course, a very subjective way of working with which some people are uncomfortable.

However, working in this way made me very aware of my own Western cultural biases and taught me to reflect carefully on what people were saying to me (and saying about BMAC) with the aim of developing methods of communicating conservation strategy. These strategies are aimed at motivating individuals to adopt pro-conservation behavior towards the macaques.

Mongabay: How useful has the collection of ethnographic data been for your conservation strategy?

Sian Waters: Like many developing world countries, Morocco is a very human-orientated society — people come first and wildlife conservation is a low priority. In addition, most issues threatening species are caused by people.

Therefore. it made sense to me to talk to the people most likely to come into contact with the macaques and to understand how they perceived and behaved towards the animals. Including shepherds in a research survey enabled me to engage with them, and from these engagements I discovered that their attitude to the macaques was complex and related to their religion, and that their behavior toward the macaque differed according to their age and marital status. I was thus able to motivate shepherds to change their behavior by continuing positive engagement, and as their behavior changed, rewarding that positive change with a football tournament.

Sian, Ahmed and Mohamed conducting field research. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: Does every conservationist need to be an ethnographer?

Sian Waters: Not necessarily. However, they might want to include an ethnographer in their team to collect qualitative data in the preliminary stages of their projects.

If, as a conservationist, I had not understood the complex relationship shepherds have with the macaque I would have missed out on opportunities to facilitate change.

Many species have specific positive (and negative) political and cultural connotations for local communities. Additionally, what people say they do and how they actually behave can be very different. Thus, participant observation is also an important factor in the human dimension of conservation.

Many conservationists now include a social science aspect in their research, but these tend to be quantitative instruments such as questionnaires, which are limited in their ability to capture the nuances of what people say. Before administering a questionnaire, qualitative data can provide the material for the questions that need to be asked rather than the ones a conservationist thinks should be asked.

Mongabay: How have you gone about changing attitudes?

Sian Waters: Consistent and genuine engagement ensures that our continued relationship with the shepherds is a positive one.

My interest in the macaques encourages the shepherds to see the species differently because someone “from far away” has come to study them. The shepherds have very good local knowledge about the macaques, but did not realize that [the species] did not occur everywhere in the world.

Some men would seek us out to talk about the macaques due to their interest in the animals, which they had to keep hidden from their peers for fear of ridicule. Supported by the BMAC team, they began to criticize other shepherds for their persecution of the macaques, while educating them about the species.

Such criticism facilitated a change in behavior; older men made the persecution of the macaques by shepherds socially unacceptable, which caused the younger shepherds to stop voluntarily.

(From left to right) Kenza, Lucy, Ahmed, Sian and Mohamed gather around the Monkey Bus for a group photo at the site of the conservation and education centre, with mountains shrouded by cloud in the background. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: How has local knowledge of macaques affected your own?

Sian Waters: People commonly express their local knowledge through features of the landscape with which they are most familiar, and Bouhachem shepherds are no exception; they label the macaque groups with the name of the place where they see the monkeys most often. This meant that my research assistant, Ahmed, and I had to have a very detailed knowledge of the landscape. [Originally] my study groups [utilized] names unconnected to place, [but] I now express my knowledge of macaque groups through place names.

Mongabay: Your project is heavily involved in local communities, running football games and using “monkey masks” to educate people about macaques. How has this been received by local kids and adults?

Sian Waters: The kids are always very shy and embarrassed at first because the macaque is [thought of traditionally as] funny or shameful. The [children] are also unused to interactive learning, but soon get into the swing of things.

Once the BMAC team starts wearing monkey masks, the kids all put theirs on and even go home wearing them. The football tournament is a way to reward the boys and men of the villages for their change in behavior, becoming macaque protectors instead of persecutors — they are highly competitive and their teams have coaches and trainers.

Mongabay: The benefits of a dog health program may not be readily apparent. Can you explain how this ties in with your macaque conservation initiative?

Sian Waters: The dogs predate on macaques and on livestock grazing in the forest. We have seen macaques survive dog attacks, so we were concerned that a rabid macaque could attack people and undo all the positive conservation work we have done. Thus we developed a Dog Health program.

This program established a positive link between the villagers and the conservation team, and reassures the villagers that we are concerned about human welfare as well as the macaques.

Mongabay: Are there any lessons from your work that could benefit conservationists working on other projects?

Sian Waters: In a human-oriented society, it is important for conservationists to reassure people that wildlife is not more important than the communities which live alongside it.

This belief, which is remarkably common, inspires resentment and non-cooperation from local communities leading to the failure of community initiatives. By continuously reflecting on my data and observations, I tried to ensure that the strategies we develop are both socially and culturally salient for local communities, so that they foster a positive response to the BMAC team and thus to the Barbary macaques.

Mongabay: Your team is currently creating a conservation and education center near Bouhachem. How will this improve your organization’s current capacity?

Sian Waters: The center will give us a base for the whole team to work [out of], provide Moroccan students with a field station, and offer a place where local people can come to improve their skills.

As with all our initiatives, we have consulted the communities about what they want and need and have kept them informed at every stage of the project.

With the benefit of the knowledge we have so far gained, we plan to bring in experts in everything from crafts to basic healthcare to ensure that our center is somewhere that people feel truly welcome and included. Once the center is complete, we will continue to talk to local people to evaluate the success of the programs we run there, and get ideas for new projects that would be helpful to them.

Bouhachem from above. This photo, taken from a high rocky outcrop, shows the vibrance of the forest as autumn turns to winter. Photo credit: Andrew Walmsley.

Mongabay: You’ve come a long way since starting BMAC in 2009. What has been your proudest achievement so far?

Sian Waters: Finishing my PhD. last year and keeping the project afloat after our core funder withdrew in 2012. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of a lot of people to whom I am very grateful.

Mongabay: What gives you hope for the future of macaques in Morocco?

Sian Waters: With our portable exhibition, we see that the Moroccan public enjoys learning about Barbary macaques when they are presented with accurate and up-to-date information about the species.

This has resulted in some people now demonstrating their interest in this monkey even if it means they are still ridiculed. We hope that more Moroccans will feel supported by us and also begin to demonstrate their interest in the macaques publicly. Together with the burgeoning animal welfare movement in Morocco, we believe that public opinion will eventually make the commercial exploitation of macaques and other wildlife socially unacceptable

Mongabay: With so many animals facing danger around the world, what can one individual do?

Sian Waters: Volunteer for smaller conservation NGOs who struggle to survive but make a substantial difference in the conservation of uncharismatic species like Barbary macaques. North Africa has wildlife too — don’t forget it!

Raise awareness among your friends and family about the cruelty involved in the wildlife photo prop trade and persuade them not to have their photos taken with wild animals and to criticize their friends who do. Become a BMAC Ambassador — go (here) to find out more.

I am very grateful to Ahmed El Harrad and the forest users of Bouhachem, without whom my research would have been impossible. I would like to acknowledge our current donors International Primate Protection League, the Association of French Zoos & Aquariums, Conservatoire pour le Protection des Primates (France), Beauval Nature (France), Folly Farm Adventure Park & Zoo (UK); NaturZoo Rheine (Germany). The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland supported my research from 2009-2012.



Waters, El-Harrad, S.A. (2013) A note on the effective use of social media to raise awareness against the illegal trade in Barbary macaques. African Primates 8: 67-68.