Supporting the industry in the development and implementation of mule welfare standards, policies and working practices
Since the Expedition Providers Association (EPA) introduced their Charter of Care for Pack Mules working in the Moroccan mountain-tourism industry in 2015, we have been working hard to help their members translate the standard into policies and implement these on the ground. This has meant a strong focus on training their ground handler teams in best practice when working loaded mules in the mountains.
EPA is to be credited with taking a firm stand on banning the traditional bit from their operations and insisting that loaded mules only be worked in head collars. This is standard practice across the world but had, until now, failed to take root in Morocco. Over the last 12 months, The Donkey Sanctuary's team has worked with EPA to transform this situation.
Anyone travelling to Morocco and undertaking a trek with mules should ensure that the company they travel with has a mule welfare policy and implementation plan in place, which ensures, among other things, that pack mules are only worked in head collars and never in traditional bits
Throughout the summer of 2015, a succession of local Moroccan teams received intensive training in how to work their mules in head collars when on trek. This meant abandoning bridles completely to allow mules to work freely, with nothing in their mouths. This encourages natural behaviour and grazing but, most importantly, requires the mule owner or handler to develop more skilled ways of working their mule. Voice commands have taken over as one of the key foundation stones of a respectful, healthy and trusting relationship. Owners have also learnt to understand mule behaviour and work with the mule rather than seeking to dominate the mule and impose themselves by means of a brutal bit designed to cause pain. It is hardly surprising that the basis of the relationship between many muleteers and their mules was fear and distrust of each other.
This initiative has therefore shifted the basis of relationships towards one of trust and understanding. This has been further aided by the emphasis on ground work using head collars. Crucially, head collars allow the owner to create head turn and neck bend and circle their mules as a means of controlling their speed when training and working them. Companies such as Far Frontiers Expeditions and The Mountain People have actually provided a stock of head collars for their muleteering teams and other companies are currently considering how to ensure head collars are made available.
Over recent months, in the build up to the 2016 trekking season, EPA companies have provided training to their British guides and leaders in how to monitor mule welfare on the ground when trekking. This means that almost all school groups heading out to Morocco now will be aware of mule welfare as a serious issue. They are aware that they have a duty and, indeed, the power to intervene and prevent abuse. Their ability to do so has been further clarified and enhanced by the introduction of mule welfare standards into the contracts between these EPA companies and their Moroccan ground handlers. This has made it very clear what is required and expected.
These represent very immediate and effective solutions that have already transformed the welfare and well-being of mules working in the industry.
I was fortunate enough to be invited recently to speak to World Challenge, a leading provider of school expeditions, and explain to them the challenges they faced in implementing animal welfare policies (and, in particular, mule welfare policies). Since then, they have appointed several members of staff to take responsibility for this important area. They did not stop there, however. At a recent two-day training workshop for their international teams, mule welfare and child protection received special attention. This left planners with a much clearer understanding of how they can protect welfare and ensure policies are applied and implemented within their services supply chain.
The recent introduction of animal welfare into the sustainability chapter of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) Guide Qualifications and Performance Standard specifically requires guides to address overloading and the use of the traditional bit. This recognizes and reinforces the work undertaken by The Donkey Sanctuary, EPA and their partners to eliminate the traditional bit from the mountain trekking industry.
This represents significant progress and it is anticipated that more than a dozen companies will have eliminated the traditional bit from their operations in Morocco this summer, thereby positively affecting the welfare of over 100 mules working out of Imlil, and many more as practices change across the High Atlas.
Anyone travelling to Morocco and undertaking a trek with mules should ensure that the company they travel with has a mule welfare policy and implementation plan in place.