The Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

Stephanie Spavento March 24, 2014

Those who garden know the frustration that can come with an infestation of pests. Imagine something way bigger that aphids, rabbits, or gophers; imagine having to protect your precious crops from herds of hungry Tamri goats. Argan tree farmers in Essaouira, Morocco are facing this exact dilemma. Agran trees are ancient; dating back to Earth’s Tertiary period, they have been on this planet for 1.6 million years. And, although they have survived for so many years, they are now becoming threatened by over-harvesting and over-grazing. Traditionally, the herds of goats in the area would hang out under the Argan trees, waiting for their ripe, bright-yellow, oily, little, olive-like fruits to fall to the ground so that they may eat them. Farmers would follow the goats around afterwards; collect their droppings, from which they would extract the indigestible Agran nuts, crack them open to reveal 1-3 small kernels, and press out their precious oils. Sold worldwide as a beauty-enhancing cosmetic for skin and hair, a small 4oz. bottle of pure Argan oil can go for $50US or more. Despite its distasteful extraction process, the valuable liquid has also been used as cooking oil for centuries: flavoring couscous, dipping bread, and dressing salads. It is said to have a fruity, nutty flavor, not unlike that of extra virgin olive oil. Because there is little else to eat in this arid environment, some hungry and impatient goats decided not to wait for the trees to drop their fruits anymore. The Argan trees themselves have low branches and twisted, gnarled bark, making it surprisingly easy for the sure-footed, cloven-hoofed animals to climb. Because goats are herd animals, they hate to be alone, so a dozen or so goats will ascend a single tree, unfazed by the branches bowing under their collective weight, and strip the whole plant bare of fruit in a matter of minutes. This bizarre and surreal sight is actually very damaging to the slow-growing trees which take years to produce the oily fruit that now has value on the international market. The recent popularity of Argan oil in the West helps ensure the conservation of the trees by giving them a monetary value, but farmers had to figure out a way to keep the goats off the trees and make the process more appealing to consumers who are instructed to use this pre-digested nut-oil on their faces. The solution was simple: small fences were built around each tree, keeping the goats at bay and allowing the farmers to collect the fruits that fall to the ground. The nuts are extracted from the greasy fruit, and cracked open for the oil-rich kernels. It’s a good solution for everyone: the goats get the leftover, nut-less fruit pulp, and people get a beauty and cooking oil that has not passed through another animals’ digestive tract. Win-win!