Through dream-like scenery where sunshine bounces off whitewashed walls and scorched grass fizzes in the heat and dust; where dogs slink warily around tips and their puppies play oblivious to the traffic, and mountains surround you as if you’re in the bottom of a steep-sided bowl, there is a place in Morocco that has stolen my heart. This place is Bouhachem, and it is home to hundreds of Barbary macaques. Barbary macaques, for those not in the know, are the only primates in Africa north of the Sahara and the only primates in Europe. They are threatened, with intensive logging, land clearance, predation by feral dogs and live capture for the pet and entertainment trade contributing to the decline in their population.
In Bouhachem, however, you could be forgiven for thinking all is well in the macaques’ world. In an oak forest on a mountain, on a clear day you can see the mountains of Spain or squint to spot the Atlantic in the distance, and apart from the occasional shepherd whose scattering of goats watch you with cool appraisal, there are few humans to be seen once you leave the villages behind. Barbary macaques are well camouflaged in their natural habitat, thick beige hair blending seamlessly with leaf litter, soil and tree bark as they move in groups from sleeping site to feeding site to another feeding site and continuously on, turning over leaves and rocks in their small, careful hands or posting comically large amounts of food into their cheek pouches. Naturally wary of humans, the groups living in Bouhachem have an incredible ability to melt away into the forest as you approach, grabbing babies and juveniles indiscriminately as they swarm up trees or hills. Sometimes, if you’re in a car, you can sit quietly and crane your neck out of a window to watch as macaque families play in the road, standing out against the tarmac. The adults sit with backs rounded as they hunch in concentration over morsels of food, and their babies, with heads too big for their bodies and skinny limbs that make your throat tighten at their vulnerability, skip and stumble tentatively around them. If another car approaches, the babies are swept up in quick arms as the group runs away; any baby left behind is soon rescued by brave males who risk their own lives to protect them.
As dusk falls and the sun’s slow creep behind the mountains paints tree trunks rich orange, the frogs and crickets start shouting as if in competition and the macaques make their way to safe sleeping sites, throwing glances over their shoulders at you if they spot you on their way. When you make your tired, contented way back to the village to bed, breathing in the smell of herbs crushed under your feet so deeply you feel dizzy, the sky fills with stars and the sounds of distant mosques carry on the crystal air. It is easy here to fall asleep thinking of macaques in trees, macaques in safe family groups, mountain views, and the intoxicating peace of an unfamiliar habitat. You don’t want to think about chainsaws and charcoal, macaques with rope around their necks and the unceasing fear of a baby separated from its family, but you know these things are out there, and closer than you dare remember.
If you are in Bouhachem, though, you are probably there because you know the people who care about all these things enough to do something about it. These people are the staff and volunteers of Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation. They go into the forest when the mountains are wrapped in freezing fog and the macaques are nowhere to be seen. They drive hundreds of miles to assist in the confiscation of macaques stolen from their families, and spend tense hours trying to reunite them with their kind. They welcome you into their own working family, show you things that change your life, then make you laugh until you cry on the way home. They never give up and that excites you, and inspires you to be even half as dedicated and just straightforwardly good as they are. Support Barbary Macaque Conservation and Awareness for thick-furred monkeys who carefully unearth mushrooms with endearing concentration; for unimaginable beauty on peaceful forest mornings, and for good people who aren’t afraid to make a difference.