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Wildlife Vacations in Morocco

A C Highfield

The desert stretched out before us, not a living thing in sight. It would be easy to imagine that this vast tract of sand and rocks was entirely devoid of any wildlife. Such a belief would be quite wrong, however, as we discovered later that night, when an astonishing variety of desert animals emerged from under rocks, from hidden crevices and from burrows to begin a nightly search for more vulnerable prey than themselves. Much of the life of the desert is governed by ability to tolerate temperature, and creatures which can tolerate the temperatures attained in the desert at mid-day are few and far between. One of the best examples of this group is the attractive Spiny-tailed lizard, Uromastyx acanthinurus, which is active at temperatures in excess of 60 Centigrade. This dramatic lizard may be seen all over the south, usually proudly dominating its territory from the top of a large rock.
Most desert animals prefer the relative cool of dawn or dusk, and many are entirely nocturnal in their habits. Genets, fennec foxes, jerboas, jirids, gerbils, striped hyena, porcupines and hedgehogs are all active at night. Many reptiles too are mainly nocturnal, and some are uniquely adapted to this mode of life. Geckoes, for example, which dart rapidly up and down vertical walls using their hairy feet, have greatly enlarged eyes. Certain snakes are also active at night, and we were lucky enough to locate a beautifully marked Sand Viper, Cerastes vipera, by following its characteristic side-winding tracks by torchlight though the dunes.
The desert at night is an experience not to be missed, the stars gleam with an intensity untainted by city lights, and the silence is disturbed only by sound of your own breathing. Nature too, is mostly silent in the desert, although the high-pitched bark of a fennec fox in the distance was occasionally heard. A sudden scurrying in the scrub usually revealed the presence of a larger lizard or a mammal, alert to our approach.

There is more to Morocco than deserts and camels, although there are certainly plenty of both in this vast country which covers an area of 458,000 square km. 460 species of birds have been recorded in Morocco, and there are at least 104 different reptiles. Unfortunately, Morocco, like all countries, does have its share of problems. Over-grazing and lack of water contribute to severe habitat degradation in many areas, and the rapid expansion of the human population only serves to intensify these pressures. The thoughtless actions of tourists also have a direct and significant impact upon the exploitation of many threatened species. A visit to almost any tourist souvenir shop will reveal a depressingly wide range of objects on sale which have been made from sometimes seriously endangered wildlife. 'Banjos' and fire-bellows made from the shells of tortoises are particularly commonplace, although, in theory, this species is protected by law. The demand by tourists to witness 'snake-charming' has also led to the virtual extinction of the cobra in many regions. The reality of the snake-charmer's 'secret' is that these snakes have had their mouths stitched partially closed. The snake is not only unable to bite, it is also unable to feed, and as a result slowly starves to death. An increased level of awareness on the part of visitors could do much to reduce this type of exploitation. Fortunately, wildlife protection is becoming more of an issue at official levels in Morocco, so there is hope for the future.

The very first time I visited Morocco, a tree, not an animal, made the greatest impact upon me. Morocco is a fabulous place for plants, and the great regional contrasts experienced in climate and relief make for a profoundly interesting flora. The endemic argan tree of southern Morocco is surely one of the most interesting sights to greet the visitor. This tree can root itself into barren rock, and can withstand extreme periods of total drought. An entire local economy revolves around its olive-like fruit, and the valuable oil extracted from it. In the villages, women (who are invariably traditionally dressed) collect these fruit by hand, and pound them between two stones to obtain the rich, amber oil. Lattifer, a teacher in the village school, explained to me that nothing has changed for centuries, and that the argan tree is as important to village life now as it ever was. I was astonished to see goats clambering among even the highest branches, but not at all surprised to be asked for a few pennies by the young goat-herd for permission take a photograph of them! The canopy of the argan tree offers shelter to a great many birds. Chameleons may also be seen among its branches, whilst its thick and thorny basal growth offers a secure refuge to many other creatures, including hares and honey badgers. Some of the finest examples of argan tree are to be seen in the region of Taroudannt, a town which neatly straddles the High and Anti-Atlas ranges, and which is convenient for both coast and desert alike.

Although major towns in Morocco, especially Marrakech and Fez, have a reputation for the high-pressure salesmanship routinely applied to tourists by street vendors and store owners alike, people in rural areas are very different. It is this side of Morocco which it is all too easy to overlook, and yet it is this side which offers the greatest rewards to the sensitive and considerate traveller. Most people still live close to the land, and are delighted to discover that you are taking a serious interest in their way of life. An invitation back to their home or to a nomad's tent is sure to follow, and before long you will find yourself sipping sweet mint tea and tasting that morning's fresh-baked bread. Stories about the local wildlife will be interspersed by fervent enquiries after your health, you family's health, and your own way of life. Morocco has a unique culture and a remarkable flora and fauna. Perhaps, like me, you will find yourself transformed into a regular visitor. From the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas to the shifting sands of the desert, there is more than enough to keep the naturalist occupied for a lifetime.

TOP 10

  • Bald ibis this exceptionally rare bird may still be seen in the coastal dunes of Southern Morocco
  • Spur-thighed tortoise despite extensive human exploitation, tortoises still occur in some areas.
  • Spiny-tailed lizard the Uromastyx lizard is common in the deserts of the South. It can tolerate temperatures up to 60C.
  • Macaque monkey the Cedar forests of the Middle Atlas mountains are home to these relatives of Gibralta's famed Barbary Apes.
  • Egyptian Cobra despite its frightening reputation, this rather timid snake is rarely seen and, due to the collecting efforts of snake charmers, is now seriously threatened.
  • Moorish gecko most visitors will encounter these fascinating wall-dwelling lizards which are mainly active at night.
  • Argan tree The Argan tree is unique to southern Morocco, where it plays an important role in local ecology and commerce.
  • Dorcas gazelle These fast moving, high-jumping gazelle might just be seen - but not if they see you first.
  • Oryx The Oryx has been extirpated by hunting, but has recently been reintroduced into the National Parks
  • Scorpions There are 5 species, all relatively common, look but don't touch.
  • Jerboa These desert rodents are very common, and their excavations are seen everywhere.

WHERE TO GO - MOROCCO

  • Souss Masa National Park, south of Agadir. One of the best birding sites in the country, with Bald Ibis and numerous migratory species to be seen.
  • Tiz-n-Test pass, between Taroudannt and Marrakech. Spectacular scenery, though not for those afraid of heights. Birds of prey soar overhead, and precariously situated mountain houses are also accommodate nesting storks.
  • Azrou in the Middle-Atlas mountains nestles amid vast cedar forests and is the best place to see 'Barbary Apes'
  • Jbel Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167 metres and is surrounded by a National Park which has a well-deserved reputation for birding.
  • Er Rachida the town itself is of limited interest, but this area is excellent for desert reptiles, birds and mammals. It is unbearably hot in summer, so is best visited in winter or spring.
  • Tafaroute is famous for its rock formations and colourfully painted villages. It is a splendid introduction to the Anti-Atlas mountains. All forms of wildlife are abundant here, especially birds and reptiles.
  • The Admine forest not far from Agadir, is formed of argan trees, some centuries old. It is a spectacular haven for tortoises, other reptiles and rare birds.
  • Goulimime will be of special of interest to keen birders, as numerous desert species may be found here. Tawny eagles and Desert Wheatears are particularly common.
  • Todra Gorge spectacular for its palmeries, geology and birdwatching opportunities.
  • Sidi Bourhaba, 30 km north of the capital, Rabat. A large lagoon is winter home to African Marsh Owls, Marbled Duck, herons and Great Crested Grebes.

Travel Tips
Royal Air Maroc is the principal carrier, although charter flights on other airlines to the holiday resorts of Agadir and Tangier may be obtained at reduced prices. The north of the country is best visited in late spring, although winter is the best time to visit the south. Summer should generally be avoided, as the heat is extreme and most plants and animals disappear until the autumn rains encourage renewed activity.

Read on

  • Morocco Handbook by Anne and Keith McLachlan. Footprint Handbooks, 1996, 10.99
  • Amphibians and Reptiles of Morocco by J. Bons and P. Geniez, Asociacion Herpetologica Espanola, 1996. 45.00
  • Exploring Nature in North Africa by J. Cremona and R. Chote, APP, 1989. 9.95
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