The real story behind Morocco’s tree-climbing goats

Is it instinct or spectacle? Drought, desperation, and tourism combine to create a surprising tableau.

By erika hobart
Published 9 Jun 2022, 12:38 BST
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Some farmers in Morocco have been placing goats in trees for years to attract tourists.
Photograph by Alfredo Caliz, Panos Pictures

It’s a challenging Friday morning for Jaouad Benaddi. He’s been trying to get his goats to climb an argan tree and settle in its gnarled, thorny branches. None of the 12 are cooperating.

Eager to help, Benaddi’s 13-year-old son Khalid grabs a bag of grain and hoists himself into the tree. One goat bleats and starts to follow. Khalid climbs higher on the widely spaced branches holding a bag of grain to encourage her to join him. He pauses long enough for the goat to catch up and eat for a moment, then grabs her neck to pull her toward him. She resists and jumps out of the tree.

Khalid Benaddi, 13, uses a bag of grain to coax one of his family’s goats up an argan tree.
Photograph by Erika Hobart
Goats like to eat argan fruit, with its thick peel and sweet-smelling pulpy flesh.
Photograph by Erika Hobart

Boy and goat repeat the process three times, until Khalid gets her positioned on a small wooden platform, where she readjusts her footing and stops moving. It takes perseverance to get the rest of the goats to comply. Some must be manoeuvred like cargo onto their platforms. Eventually, a dozen goats are standing eerily still, displayed like living ornaments in the argan’s canopy.

Morocco’s tree-climbing goats have made headlines in recent years. Often described as a natural phenomenon unique to the North African nation, their climbing is instinctual to an extent: The goats are attracted to the fruit in argans and, agile as they are, will clamber up to reach the pulpy treats.

Animal welsfare advocates and ecologists say that making goats stand in argan trees for hours is bad for the animals and bad for the trees.
Photograph by Wolfgang Kaehler, LightRocket, Getty Images

Mauro Belloni, a student visiting from Italy who had stopped at Benaddi’s tree, looks both stunned and baffled as he takes in the scene. “It’s quite amazing,” he says. "I thought the goats were fake when I saw photos of them. But they're real—they’re actually posing.”

Morocco is experiencing its worst drought in decades, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to grow crops in this western region of Marakesh-Safi. Beginning in the early 2000s, some started treeing their goats to earn tips from tourists. The income source dwindled after the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020. But after the country’s lockdown ended early this year, the goat-display business resumed—and with it, criticism from animal welfare advocates such as Liz Cabrera Holtz, Wildlife Campaign Manager at World Animal Protection, a UK-based global nonprofit.

“These animals are being manipulated and exploited,” she says. “They're not moving freely. They don't have access to food, water, or even shade. Being forced to stay in trees for hours is not a normal behaviour."

‘Flying goats’

The goats perched in Morocco’s trees are “trained to do it as a spectacle,” says Marrakech-based tour guide Mohamed Elaamrani. “They can climb trees and even mountains, and they’re really good at it. Some of my guests refer to them as flying goats. They want to see them because there’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world.” 

Goats sometimes do clamber up argan trees of their own accord to snack on their pulpy fruit.
Photograph by FADEL SENNA, AFP, Getty Images

Nine separate herds, including Benaddi’s, can be seen adorning trees along the roughly hundred-mile road from ancient Marrakech to Essaouira, a bright, breezy city on the Atlantic coast that’s popular with tourists. The goats generally stand from late morning to mid-afternoon, when traffic is heaviest between the two cities. Goats in trees also can be seen farther south, near Agadir in the Souss-Massa region.

“They’re like mushrooms—they’re everywhere,” Elaamrani says.

Benaddi’s argan tree is second in line out of Marrakech. He hopes that when drivers pull over, they’ll leave a generous tip. “Some people pay 10 dirhams [about 80p],” he says. Some even give 10 times that. “It’s not like selling potatoes—there’s not one set price.” Benaddi says the money is crucial for caring for his wife, five children, and animals—two sheep and a donkey as well as the goats.

He says he started putting goats in the tree in 2019 after his wheat crop failed. Back then on a good day, at least 10 vehicles would stop, and he’d take home about £15. Then during the pandemic lockdown, all but one of his 13 goats starved to death. Since February, when Morocco reopened, Benaddi has acquired a new herd—the dozen animals he and Khalid were cajoling up the tree that Friday morning. But he says he’s lucky now if three cars stop to gawk.

It will take up to six months to train the goats, Benaddi says. “They’re very smart—they’re like people. The only thing they can’t do is talk,” he adds with a smile. “But some of them are very stubborn. They like to wander.” Training involves enticing the goats into the tree with argan fruit and grain and prodding them into place with a stick. Baby goats are often tied to the trunk of trees to make it easy for tourists to pick them up and take photos with them.

Mustapha Elaboubi, another herder on the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, says he doesn’t bother training his goats. He and his helpers simply carry the animals up the tree themselves. "They try to jump down in the beginning, so we keep picking them up and putting them back,” Elaboubi says. “Eventually, they learn that there’s no point in trying.”

Do goats ever get hurt?

Elaamrani says clients who ask to visit the tree-climbing goats often find the experience doesn’t meet their expectations. “Some people get uncomfortable. They worry and ask how the goats get in and out of the trees. They want to know if they ever get hurt.”

Miloud Banaaddi gave up farming because of severe drought in Morocco's southern Atlantic coast region and is training his eight goats to perch for tourist tips. “There are no jobs,” he says. “There are no other solutions.”
Photograph by Erika Hobart

Adnan El Aji, a veterinarian in Essaouira, says goats are resilient and can cope with stressors such as heat and water scarcity. But making them stand in trees for hours during Morocco’s summers, when temperatures can soar above 100°F (37°C), can lead to heat stress and dehydration. And the animals can fall out of trees and get hurt. He recalls the time a tourist brought a goat that had fallen and needed treatment for a broken leg. “The tourist paid for it,” he says.

Back at Benaddi’s argan tree, when it’s time for his goats to go home, 11 get down easily. Khalid climbs up to coax the straggler, a female, while his older brother, Abdelmajid, tosses small stones at her, then uses a stick to agitate the branch she’s standing on. The goat teeters and crashes to the ground, a fall of about 12 feet. After a few attempts, she struggles to her feet, and as the others walk to their pen, she trails behind, limping.

Although Morocco is a member of the World Organisation for Animal Health—the body responsible for assessing animal health and welfare globally— the country lacks strong animal-protection laws, says Cabrera Holtz.

In 2021, when the nonprofit organisation World Animal Protection ranked 50 countries based on their laws and policy commitments pertaining to animals, Morocco was one of only seven given a failing grade.

The organisation evaluates animal welfare according to five domains: nutrition (access to food and water), environment (comfort), health (freedom from pain and injuries), behaviour (freedom to express natural habits), and mental state (psychological well-being). Goats forced to climb trees for the pleasure of tourists were maltreated in all five, Cabrera Holtz says.

“While the activity might appear to be benign, it is animal cruelty,” she says. Tourists, she adds, “are essentially getting photos of living props. What’s going on here is not natural. It’s coerced, and any time you introduce an element of coercion, it’s not relevant whether their bodies can manage to stand on trees.”

Asma Kamili, the head of Morocco’s Animal Health Division for the World Organisation for Animal Health, says she isn’t aware that goats in the Essaouira region are put in trees to earn tourism dollars. She says climbing trees is “a natural behaviour” of the animals and is good for argans because if goats eat the fruit and disperse seeds in their faeces, that increases the number of trees.

Jose Fedriani, an ecologist with the Desertification Research Centre, an institute in Spain that’s dedicated to the study of environmental degradation in dry lands, agrees that seed dispersal is a good thing. But he says the goats aren’t just eating fruit; they’re devouring leaves and seedlings. It takes from seven to 15 years for argans to reach maturity and produce fruit, so putting several goats in an area where they can destroy the seedlings—especially during droughts—actually prevents tree rejuvenation.

Using goats as aerial eye candy is good “for attracting tourists,” Fedriani says, “but it's not good for the trees at all.”

About half-a-mile along the road from Benaddi’s argan, Miloud Banaaddi—who also has had to give up farming and is training his eight new goats to perch in his almond tree—dismisses any notion that what he’s doing is cruel. “The goats are only in the trees for three to four hours at a time,” he says. “Imagine if I kept them inside the house”—they’d be imprisoned and would go hungry. “Where would the money come from to feed them? There is nothing else to do. There are no jobs. There are no other solutions. This is the only one.”

‘There needs to be a system’

Drought conditions in Morocco are expected to intensify through mid-century, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“This should all be green by now, but you can see that it’s completely dry,” Benaddi says, gesturing to the parched landscape around the argan. “We didn’t have to spend money on feeding the goats before—they had food everywhere.”

Mustapha Elaboubi's goats stand on wooden platforms in an argan tree on the road from Marrakech to Essaouira. “They’re like mushrooms—they’re everywhere,” says Mohamed Elaamrani, a Marrakech-based tour guide, of his country's “flying goats.”
Photograph by Erika Hobart

He says he had no interest in using his goats as roadside attractions until it became too dry to grow wheat. “I’m doing a job, the goats are doing a job,” he says. “The money we make is used to buy food for all of us—my family and the goats.”

Daniel Bergin, associate director at Globescan, a sustainability consulting firm, has studied animal welfare in Morocco and is sympathetic toward Benaddi and other farmers like him. “Obviously, you can’t just take away somebody’s livelihood,” he says, referring to calls by animal welfare advocates to shut down the goats-in-trees business. “There needs to be a system in place. The government needs to work with the people.”

Take bear dancing in India, Bergin says. Formerly, cubs were poached from the wild and trained to dance on the streets for tourists. In 2012, India’s government condemned the practice as cruel and made it possible for bear owners to take jobs in sanctuaries for the animals.

“It did at least involve the people who would have been out of a livelihood and allow them to continue working while improving the lives of the animals,” Bergin says.

Elaamrani, whose livelihood depends on the tour groups he leads, says he’d prefer to see the goats roaming freely and climbing for fruit when they want. But after two years of pandemic lockdown, he says he can’t afford to turn his clients down. “They’re paying money to see something,” he says. “But I do try to explain the situation in an honest way. It’s not a black-and-white issue. It’s difficult for the goats, but it’s also difficult for the people who take care of them.”

Benaddi says that in an ideal world, the land would be green again. He’d return to farming and would be able to look after his family and his goats without standing by the side of the road every day waiting for people to stop and give him tips.

“We hope for the best,” he says. “But only God knows the future.”

Erika Hobart is a travel journalist and photographer based in Marrakech, Morocco. Follow her on Instagram.

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