The Tree Goats of Morocco

goats in argan tree

These Moroccan goats have an important role in the extraction of argan oil, a precious commodity. (Photo credit: Yavuz Sariyildiz/Alamy)

While goats are well-known for their ability to jump over fences and scale great heights, a certain population of goats in southwestern Morocco takes their climbing skills to a whole new level.

These goats are found high in the branches of the argan tree (Argania spinosa) when the trees are full of fruit. The farmers in the region encourage this unusual behavior, because they are after the seeds in the fruit. The seeds are a source of argan oil, a precious commodity that is known as the most expensive edible oil in the world and garners a price of up to $300/liter. It is primarily used as an ingredient in luxury beauty products. Argan oil is composed of 80 percent unsaturated fatty acids, and research indicates the oil has antioxidant effects, such as neutralizing free radicals, restoring skin’s elasticity, and in terms of whole-body effects, it also helps to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.

In order to extract the oil from the fruit–which has an appearance similar to a shriveled golden apple, the fleshy pulp of the fruit must be removed and the oily kernels found within must be broken manually. The goats hasten this process by eating the fruit. It was originally thought that the seeds were excreted in the goats’ waste material, but upon further inspection, it was found that the goats actually spit out the seeds as they chew their cud. The seeds are then collected by farmers and pressed to procure the precious oil.

When goats are not a part of the process, the fruits are gathered and allowed to dry in the sun. The husk is removed and used as animal feed, and the kernels within are collected. The kernels are crushed by hand with stones. The seeds within are either cold-pressed for cosmetic production or lightly-toasted and pressed for food purposes. When used for food, the oil is mainly used as a finishing dressing as it has a low smoke-point and is not suitable to be cooked over heat.

The goats routinely climb trees that are 8-10 meters (26-33 feet) high. During the summer months of June and July when the fruits are ripe, the goats spend up to 70 percent of their time grazing in the treetops. Argan trees are an important part of the southwestern Moroccan ecosystem and serve as a barrier to the Sahara desert. The trees provide local people with a source of wood, food for livestock, cooking oil, and medicine. International interest in argan oil first began in the 1990s and continues to draw high prices as a major component in high-end hair and cosmetics products. As a result, farmers in the region have seen an increase in their income and this has allowed them to purchase more goats. However, though the goats are helpful to the process of extracting the oil, they can also cause damage to the trees.

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Country: Morocco

Location: Morocco is located in northern Africa. It borders the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and is found between Algeria and the western Sahara Desert.

Area: 446,550 sq km (land and water) (slightly larger than California)

Climate: Morocco has a Mediterranean climate, though it has a more extreme climate in the interior of the country.

Terrain: The terrain of Morocco includes a mountainous northern coast (Rif Mountains) and interior (Atlas Mountains) bordered by large plateaus with intermontane valleys, and fertile coastal plains.

Natural Resources: Fish, iron ore, lead, manganese, phosphates, salt, zinc

Economics: $104.9 billion (est. 2016)

Environmental Issues: Environmental issues in Morocco include land degradation/desertification, water supplies contaminated by raw sewage, siltation of reservoirs, and oil pollution of coastal waters.

Source: CIA – The World Factbook


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