Seeing the cloven-hoofed goats in Morocco climb trees is a bewildering sight. They only climb one particular type of tree: the Argania spinosa, typically referred to as the argan tree. The tree is endemic to southwest Morocco. A prickly and thorny tree, it produces small yellowish flowers, which then produce a fairly small fruit. The fruit’s seed is within a nut, which is further surrounded by soft flesh and a tough outer skin.
The fruit’s pulp is what attracts the goats to the argan trees. While the creatures will happily keep all hooves firmly on the ground and graze on low-hanging fruit, once they have gobbled the easy-to-reach produce, they will scramble up into the tree in search of more. The fruit is not consumed by humans.
In a country where food sources can be scarce for wildlife, Moroccan goats discovered a meal that they both enjoy and do not need to compete for. Kept away from the trees until the fruit is ripe (maturing takes more than a year), farmers actively encourage the goats to climb the trees for a good feed as soon as the fruit is ready. There are several reasons why.
The nut of the argan tree is used to produce the much-sought-after argan oil, an oil that is thought to have many beneficial properties and is used for both culinary and cosmetic purposes. So why would the farmers want the goats to eat the fruit?
The goats cannot digest the nuts. Instead, they strip away the skin, devour the pulp, and swallow the nut whole. The nut then passes through the goats’ digestive systems, softening in the process, before being passed in the excrement. The nuts can then be gathered and ground to produce argan oil.
Although the goats played a major role in the argan oil industry in times gone by, the growing demand and market for argan oil products have led to other ways being used to mass produce the oil. Additionally, oil extracted from excreted kernels is typically only used for cosmetic reasons. Unlike kopi luwak (also known as civet coffee), people aren’t so keen on consuming something that came from, essentially, poop.
The tourism industry is one of the main reasons today why the goats are encouraged to climb the trees. As well as making some money from the collected nuts, farmers are also able to reap significant income from charging curious visitors who take photos of the bizarre sight. Indeed, in certain parts of the country, the goats in trees are somewhat of a roadside attraction. Tour buses make regular stops en route to other destinations, with most people jumping out to snap some pictures of the goats in exchange for a “tip” to the waiting farmers. One such route is the main road between Marrakech and Essaouira. Do note that if you try to sneakily take a photograph and avoid paying, there’s a high chance that you will be seen and hassled for money.
Because seeing goats in trees is such a novel sight, more and more farmers have purchased larger number of goats to create a profitable attraction. This means that many of the goats visitors see in the trees, especially in areas close to major roads, have actually been lifted into the trees by the farmers. They are kept in the trees throughout the day and then taken down in the evening. Ropes are often used to haul the animals in and out of the trees, and the goats may sometimes be tethered in the trees. The goats may stand on branches, though it’s not uncommon to notice small planks of wood nailed to the branches to act as a more stable support for the photogenic goats.
Although the fruit is only ripe at a certain time of year, farmers often put goats in the trees throughout the tourist season. This means that there is nothing for the goats to even munch upon during their long, hot days standing in the sun.
The larger numbers of goats roaming through the argan trees is also a contributing factor to the decline in the number of healthy trees. Eating the fruit before it’s ripe and nibbling on young leaves can stunt the growth of the trees. Excessive climbing damages the trees too. Argan trees are in danger, and the Moroccan argan forest is listed by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve.
If seeing goats in trees is on your list of things to do in Morocco, head to the Souss Massa Draa region in the southwest of the country. The area includes the popular tourist destinations of Agadir and Essaouira, and the lesser-visited fortified market city of Taroudant. Argan trees grow throughout the region’s mountains. For a higher chance of an authentic spotting, head off the beaten track and travel through the mountainous areas. For the novelty factor, however, goats perched in trees can be seen in various places within easy reach of the major tourism centres.
The fruit is ripe each June, after a year-long period of maturing. Late spring and early summer is, therefore, the best time to see goats chomping away in the argan trees. While it’s possible to see goats high in the branches at other times of the year, it’s unlikely that they will actually be eating anything.
Don’t be tempted to take any fallen fruit away as a souvenir after seeing the goats; local customs and laws govern the entitlement to gather the fruit. Farmers won’t be happy if they see you popping some into your bag.