Hundreds of iconic Barbary macaques feared dead in Morocco forest fire

By Anna Majavu

  • A wildfire has burned through half of the Bouhachem Forest Reserve in northern Morocco, one of the few remaining refuges of the Barbary macaque.
  • The fire forced the evacuation of more than 900 families from 15 villages in this region of the Rif mountains, destroying homes and crops and killing livestock.
  • In recent months, exceptionally hot, dry conditions have prevailed in Morocco and around the Mediterranean and Western Europe, with observers saying climate change is exacerbating the conditions that produce forest fires in the region.
  • The largest trees in the Bouhachem reserve have largely survived, but the burning of the forest understory will have a massive impact on the availability of grazing for villagers’ livestock, as well as food for macaques and other species.

A wildfire that tore through the Rif mountains in northern Morocco for several days from July 25 has destroyed more than a dozen villages and is likely to have ravaged the endangered Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) monkey population living there. Some 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) has burned, about half of the Bouhachem Forest Reserve.

Local media reported that 935 families from 15 villages in the region of the fires were evacuated. Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation (BMAC), a U.K.-based NGO that has a base in the Bouhachem reserve in the Rif mountains, says local communities have lost their houses, wheat and other crops and much of their livestock.

“The villagers rely on the Bouhachem forest for non-timber forest products, particularly grazing for their cows and goats,” said Siân Waters, an adviser to BMAC. “It is probable that many cows will have been killed by the fire and this is a substantial loss in terms of meat and milk. The villagers also relied on the forest for the collection of medicinal plants and mushrooms which they sell.”

Forest fire above a village in Bouhachem.
Forest fire above a village near Bouhachem: villagers have lost homes, crops, and livestock in the most intense fire for 40 years. Organizations including Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation will try to aid their recovery. Image courtesy of Ahmed Al Harrad/BMCRif.

Sidi Imad Cherkaoui, associate professor at the Superior School of Technology–Kénitra in Morocco’s University of Ibn Tofail, said the wildfire was “one of the most devastating and deadly in the last 40 years.”

Cherkaoui, also a member of the Moroccan committee of the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, described the scale and intensity of the fire as “staggering” and warned that other fires have broken out in the Khénifra, Ouazzane and Al Hoceima forests in northern Morocco. The sirocco, a powerful easterly wind that blows in the Mediterranean at this time of year, may mean that many more fires are yet to come, he told Mongabay.

“Climate change exacerbates the factors that create perfect wildfire conditions,” Cherkaoui said. “Lower precipitation and warmer air temperatures dry the Mediterranean shrubs and trees. Devastating wildfires in Morocco have broken out in several forested areas of the country mainly in Larach, Ouazzane, Chefchaoun and Taza.”

Cherkaoui said the Barbary macaque may even suffer “population collapse” as a result of the fire.

Villagers spent days working alongside the army and the forestry department in searing heat fighting the fire, which was only extinguished late on Aug. 1. The homes of two BMAC conservationists, Mohamed and Ahmed Chetuan, were burnt to the ground.  BMAC has since put out an international call for funds to supply the displaced communities with food and medicine.

The fire has also affected wildlife in the Bouhachem reserve, which is home to several species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species: Greek turtles (Testudo graeca); the Berber stag (Cervus elaphus barbarus) which is endemic to the Maghreb and only recently introduced to the reserve; and the Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata) and northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), birds that are considered to be regionally rare and highly threatened, according to Cherkaoui.

The best-known species in Bouhachem is the Barbary macaque, the only primate species left in North Africa.  Save for a remnant population of 300 in Gibraltar, this macaque is found only in the Bouhachem reserve and the Atlas Mountains region in Algeria. They’re a key attraction for visitors to Bouhachem, generating income for local communities.

Barbary macaques
The Bouhachem Forest Reserve in northern Morocco is one of the few remaining refuges for the Barbary macaques. Image courtesy of Sian Waters.

Of the 4,000 Barbary macaques in the forest, 23 have been found dead so far — killed by the fire. However, given that these were all members of a group of just 56 living closest to the BMAC base, Waters said she fears the total number of dead Barbary macaques will rise over the coming days.

Barbary Macaque Conservation in the Rif (BMCRif), a Moroccan nonprofit based in the area, estimated that hundreds of Barbary macaques may have perished in the fire.

“Many eyewitnesses saw multiple macaques running from the flames,” said BMCRif president Ahmed El Harrad. “We are concerned that hundreds of the macaques in Bouhachem have either been killed or will die from burns and/or smoke damage to their lungs. Most of their food sources have disappeared and will not regenerate fully until it rains, hopefully in September or October.”

The fire also burned away thick layers of leaf litter and the understory of the forest, which the macaques rely on for food in the lean months. And while the Bouhachem oak trees seem to have survived the fire, they will not mast — produce fruit or nuts end masse — this year, Waters said.

“Mast forms a very important part of the macaques’ diet in Bouhachem and is how the macaques put on weight to prepare for winter, which can be very cold in the Rif,” she said.

Once it’s safe for people to enter the forest again, conservationists will assess the unburned parts of the forest to try to project where the macaques will be able to find food in the coming months.

A village in Bouhachem with the Rif mountains in the background.
A village in Bouhachem with the Rif mountains in the background. Image courtesy of Sian Waters.
A burned patch of forest in the Bouhachem Forest Reserve.
Large trees have survived the fire, but are unlikely to bear fruit this year. With the forest’s understory burned away, conservationists fear macaques will not find enough food to survive the winter. Image courtesy of Siân Waters.

Fires like these are fast becoming a regular feature of the changing climate around the Mediterranean. Waters said snowfall has become unusual in Bouhachem, and the dry period during the summer has become much longer.

This past July, record-high temperatures of up to 47° Celsius (117° Fahrenheit) saw wildfires sweep across the pine forests of Bordeaux in France, Casas de Miravete and southern Andalusia in Spain, and parts of Portugal, Croatia and Hungary. The fires forced more than 33,000 people to flee their homes, with whole towns in the west of Spain having to be evacuated. More than 280 people died in Portugal and Spain, most as a result of the heat wave that helped sustain the wildfires.

The Bouhachem fire “is clearly linked to the wider eruption of wildfires around the Mediterranean and in Portugal/Spain/France in the past month,” Waters said. “If the present high temperatures become the norm then so will forest fires, which doesn’t bode well for the people or wildlife of Bouhachem.”

Cherkaoui estimated that the burnt forests will take decades to fully recover. At the same time, agricultural expansion, overgrazing by domestic livestock, and the use of the forests to grow cannabis will likely hinder the forests’ recovery.

But Cherkaoui added that the impact of the fires might not be entirely bad. “Many species living under the Mediterranean climate evolved to cope with fire, and some need it to thrive. The mosaic of burned and unburned areas left after a fire can, for example, provide valuable habitat for the entire assemblage of bird species,” he said.

Waters pointed to the 1912 occupation of Morocco by Spain as proof that the Bouachem forest can regenerate.

“The macaques and the oak trees of Bouhachem were heavily exploited by the Spanish when they occupied the area — so much so that one elderly villager described the mountains as being ‘shaved’ [of trees]. Barbary macaque numbers were low due to this exploitation,” she said.

But when the forest became a protected area, the trees recovered and so did the Barbary macaques.

“Bouhachem and the macaques have come back before and they can do so again,” Waters said, “but the big question is whether our activities will allow them to.”

A Barbary macaque in a burned forest.
A Barbary macaque in a burned forest. Image courtesy of Siân Waters.

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