The Story Behind Bizarre Tree-Climbing Goats of Morocco

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.

Written by August 13, 2019 14:04

New Delhi: Looking like goat-shaped baubles decking out a tree, what’s driving this seemingly odd sight is the creature’s immense craving for a tasty snack. You may come across rather an unusual sight when traveling in some areas of Morocco: goats perched on the branches of trees, happily munching on fruit.

In south-western Morocco, acrobatic goats climb argan trees to eat their fruit and leaves. A tree full of goats is a striking sight, but the goats’ widely overlooked habit of regurgitating and spitting out the nuts may be important to the life of these forests.

Why do Moroccan Goats Climb Trees?
The cloven-hoofed goats in Morocco 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.

Traditional Role in Agriculture and the Argan Oil Industry
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!

Local farmers have also encouraged the goats’ craving, owing to the animals’ rather lucrative poop. The seeds are indigestible, so once the goat has done the tricky work of eating the fruit from the high branches, the goat herders collect some of the seeds from the excrement, for processing into oil.
Argan oil is a valuable export for Morocco. It’s sold in wealthier countries as pricey cosmetics and food. The oil generates more than $6.5 million (€5.7 million) per year for Morocco’s economy.