GIBRALTAR’S famous Barbary macaques face a death sentence if efforts to protect them from COVID fail.
The government has warned it might have to cull the iconic monkeys if the coronavirus jumps species, as it has with minks elsewhere in Europe.
Patrols have now been stepped up to make sure the macaques are not approached or touched by humans.
A spokesman from the Environmental department said there were serious worries the macaques could be vulnerable to the virus.
There are also concerns that mutant strains may jump back into the human population from infected animals.
These were reinforced by the recently announced cull of farmed minks in Denmark, Spain and Italy, which were found to be infected by a mutated version of coronavirus.
The Danish government said the mutation could threaten the effectiveness of any future vaccine.
The World Health Organisation has said that further scientific study is needed to understand any potential implications of the new strain.
A spokesman said: “It remains a concern when any animal virus spills into the human population, or when an animal population could contribute to amplifying a virus.”
The concerns led to a new law specifically forbidding the touching and feeding of monkeys that was introduced in August.
The new law came ‘followed evidence’ that the SARS-COV-2 virus was being transmitted from humans to animals such as dogs, cats, lions and tigers.
“The recent development in Denmark has resulted in the mass culling of mink and is particularly worrying given the implications this could cause for Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques,” said the spokesman.
“The consequences (of a mutation) would clearly be hugely significant, and could include the need to cull our macaques.”
He added the Environment Department would be undertaking ‘more regular patrols at known hotspots’.
“Interference with macaques has always been discouraged since it can prejudice their health and social structure as well as result in aggressive behaviour,” he added.
The macaques are hugely significant to Gibraltar, with the legend being that so long as they remain on The Rock, it will stay in British hands.
In 1942 after the population had alarmingly dwindled to just seven, Winston Churchill ordered that the numbers of the monkeys be replenished immediately from both Morocco and Algeria.
They are also seen as one of the major tourism attractions of Gibraltar, bringing in considerable revenue.