You’ve likely seen a photo of many goats standing in the thorny branches of a tree. I had, and I knew those photos were taken in Morocco, specifically in Argan trees. I was headed to Morocco and hoped I’d get to see the unusual sight.
Near the end of my tour, I did come upon goats in an argan tree. When you see the site up close and in person, it’s almost unbelievable. You must stop and grab a camera. And stopping is precisely what the goat owners want.
The Story Behind Why Goats Stand in Argan Trees
The reason behind the goats in the trees goes back to Drought, Desperation, and Dollars.
Morocco has suffered drought conditions for years, and many farmers can’t grow wheat. The lockdown and isolation during the pandemic made the situation worse. Farmers had little income and no green fields for grazing their herds. Many goats died if they couldn’t afford to buy feed. So, they became desperate.
The farmers understood that people were intrigued by seeing goats in trees. So, when tourists started to return, the farmers began encouraging their goats to climb and stay in the argan trees. Even under drought, the argan trees still produce their sweet-smelling pulpy fruit. Goats adore the fruit, and the digested seeds become argan oil (more on that later)
The clever farmers built small platforms for the goats. They enticed them with argan fruit and grain and prodded them into place. Since goats are stubborn, it takes about six months to train them. The training is repetitious conditioning: when they jump down, they are put back and eventually learn.
The sight of the goats in the trees became what you might call aerial eye candy and caused wide-eyed tourists to get out of their cars for a closer look. The bus group tour leaders and individuals who stopped were willing to pay, so farmers began charging for photos. Now goats climb the trees like it’s their job—because it is.
The Other Side of the Story
However, the owners coaxing goats to stand on platforms caused criticism from the World Animal Protection Organization, a UK-based global nonprofit. They claim the animals don’t have food, water, or shade access. They are not allowed to move freely.
Morocco is one of seven countries that gets a failing grade from the nonprofit organization because the country lacks strong animal protection laws.
So, the situation is difficult for the goats and animal rights activists.
Argan Oil: A Third Side to the Story
However, goats eating argan fruit is good for the environment. The animals disperse the seed in their feces to grow more trees and help to produce argan oil. Argan oil comes from the poop of the goats after eating the ripe fruit. Goats can’t digest the fruit’s seed, but their munching on them strips away the skin and pulpy fruit. If they swallow the seed, it gets passed through their digestive system and becomes, so to speak, “softened.” If the goats spit out the fruit, they leave a clean, spit-out seed for processing.
To get to the oil, the debris is collected, and the remaining fruit harvested. Workers must crack the hard shell to remove kernels, roast them, and grind them to produce a thick paste. Kneading the paste, then extracts the oil. You need 30 kilograms of nuts to produce one kilogram of argan oil.
Currently, this labor-intensive work provides jobs and money for typically unemployed women. Now they often work in co-operatives. They use a semi-industrial mechanical extraction process that allows the production of high-quality argan oil.
The use of argan oil in the cosmetic industry has blossomed, and the demand for the oil increased. Numerous luxury brand hair and skin care products contain argan oil claiming anti-aging results and better-nourished hair.
No surprise, I’ve earned some wrinkles, so bought the oil in Morocco when I visited a co-op. But don’t be fooled: watch out for brands oil tampering or adding other oils to argan. The real deal should be clear or slightly light dullish color, not yellow.
Where to See the Goats in Morocco
If you want to see the cloven-hoofed critters climbing the branches of the Argan tree, head to the southwest Morocco, around Agadir, Essaouira, and the market city of Taroudant. Along the 100-mile road from Essaouira to Marrakech, you will likely see assemblages of goats in argan trees.
I visited Essaouira, an ancient but active port on the Atlantic coast. Nearby I saw and photographed the anticipated site. But I feel torn; I treasure my photos as memories of the goats and my trip. I hope my donation helped a farmer, but I feel concerned about their welfare. Perhaps we may need to do a rain dance to help end the drought and return animals to pastures on the farmland.
As with all conflicts, the dilemma will take time to resolve.