Mohamed greeted me with his usual smile. He was one of my ex-students from the guide school in Morocco and is now working successfully as an aspirant guide in the Toubkal National Park.
Despite his smile and warm greeting I sensed something was amiss. His group looked shell shocked and it was not long before I learnt why...
Moments before my arrival, a mule and rider had stopped to allow Mohamed’s group to pass. Somehow the mule had lost her footing and stumbled backwards onto the steep stony slope. Her owner and rider jumped off and tried to halt his mule. In a split second the mule flipped backwards and tumbled down the hillside before crashing over a steep cliff and falling some sixty metres into the ravine below.
I ran down to check that the mule had not survived the fall. Slowed by the difficult ground that lay between me and the waterfall below, it took me more than ten minutes of scrambling to reach the mule. Fortunately, her death had been swift and it was a lifeless head that peered up at me from the swirling waters of the Mizane river.
Having established there was nothing I could do for the poor, unfortunate mule, I returned to the track and continued on up to the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, where I caught up with Mohamed and his group.
I was touched to learn that this Swedish group had been so marked by the traumatic scenes they had witnessed that they straight away dug into their pockets to compensate the owner for his loss.
This is not the first such tragic accident I have encountered in the Toubkal National Park. There are probably several such accidents each year.
Sadly, tour agencies do not provide any health care or insurance for the mules they employ in the High Atlas of Morocco. Across the world, porters are increasingly being provided with these basic needs, a concern that is ably promoted by the International Porter Protection Group. But, who pays for the treatment of an injured mule? Who keeps them healthy? Who compensates the owner in the event of the loss of a mule?
The mules of the High Atlas literally carry the mountain tourism industry on their backs but their own needs are all too easily overlooked. It is often the case that the mules themselves also have no names. In this case, the tourists were moved to act. All too often, however, the mule’s suffering is overlooked by an industry that has yet to establish codes of practice.
The Donkey Sanctuary is supporting efforts to ensure the mule’s welfare becomes a priority for all those involved in mountain tourism.
Tonight the entire village is talking about the mule and about mule welfare. It is essential that trekkers and trek agencies work together with those on the ground, such as The Donkey Sanctuary, to ensure that mules and their owners are not exploited.
Positive ways to make improvements
There are ways that the welfare of mules and muleteers could be improved. For example:
Agencies concerned about remaining competitive could offer an 'animal welfare supplement' in the same way that airline passengers are asked to carbon offset.
In this manner, a separate budget is provided to ensure the mule receives appropriate care.
Where the muleteer is underpaid and still has to purchase food for his mule, it is self-evident that the mule will receive less feed or a lower quality of feed. Self-evident yes, but all too easily overlooked!
Such exploitation also makes it less likely that any necessary repairs to the mule’s saddle blanket are undertaken properly. This commonly leads to sores developing on a mule’s back.
Responsible tourists can expect that tour agents think carefully about the mules that work for them and generate their profits. It is a complete certainty that the mule will do all the hard work and receive little or no thanks or reward! As ever, the mule and muleteer are relatively powerless and easily exploited. A good agent will therefore pay a fair wage and have a policy in place that ensures the common problems associated with overloading, inadequate feed and poor quality or poorly maintained harness and tack are all avoided.
Key considerations for trekkers and tour companies using pack mules were provided in an earlier blog. The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) have also just published animal welfare guidelines for the tourism industry.
Few agencies have effective measures in place to protect mule welfare. No agency, as far as we know, ensures that humane tethers are used on the mules or insists that stainless steel bits are always used. It is for this reason that almost all mules have evidence of burns and scarring to their forelimbs where they have been tethered with nylon ropes. Similarly, no one seems to have addressed the overloading that occurs when muleteers ride their already heavily loaded mule on downhill sections.
Food for thought
The following suggestions should be borne in mind by the tourist wishing to trek with pack mules in Morocco:
- The recommended weight limit for a pack mule is 50-80kg. On steep terrain where there is a lot of loading on tendons, this should tend towards the lower end of the range. Bearing in mind that the saddle blanket itself weighs around 20kg, the mule should be carrying two bags of 15-20kg and no more!
- You can make a careful note of the weight of your bags on checking in.
- You can yourselves stipulate before the trek starts that you will tip the muleteers on condition that they do not themselves ride their mule. An extra 60-80kg brings the weight up towards 150kg. It is this sort of overloading that, especially in descent, contributes to tendinitis. These are common within the population of pack mules working in the Atlas.
- You should check that your tour operator / travel agent is paying a fair wage. It is suggested that this should be at least 110 dirhams a day. The best tour agents will pay 130-150 dirhams.
- A separate budget should be provided to pay for a mule’s shoes and care.
It's very sad that the mule died, but together we can learn from this and work to make sure it doesn't happen again.