Placing pack mule welfare firmly on the agenda
Like mules, muleteers are all too easily dismissed as low status and barely worthy of a second thought. Our efforts to improve the lives and welfare of mules and muleteers in the Toubkal National Park seek to challenge this view and have chalked up some significant successes over the past few weeks and months. We have succeeded in building a coalition of partners all determined to advance the cause of animal welfare in the Moroccan mountain tourism industry. And, thanks to their collective efforts, this week saw an unprecedented gathering of people in the mountain village of Imlil, south of Marrakech.
This was indeed an auspicious occasion for it was the first ever conference on pack mule welfare held for tour companies in Morocco. It saw delegates representing many of the most important Moroccan, British, German and French trekking companies converge on the Kasbah du Toubkal for a two-day workshop on pack animal welfare in mountain tourism. This meeting was born of a collaborative effort between the Expedition Provider’s Association and The Donkey Sanctuary and achieved far more than we ever could have hoped for.
Bringing together representatives from companies including Ame d’Aventure, Complete Tours, Discover Limited, Exodus, Far Frontiers Expeditions, Hauser, Mountain Travel Morocco, Outlook Expeditions, Peak Adventure Travel, The Mountain People, Range Advantage and World Challenge was in itself an achievement. That they did so to learn about the much overlooked issue of pack mule welfare within their industry speaks volumes for their willingness to improve the lot of mules, upon whose back the industry is carried. That they were joined in this venture by representatives of the local muleteer association and over twenty local muleteers is also to be celebrated.
The workshop was split over two days with the first day devoted to exploring the many worrying welfare problems that mules are subject to in the High Atlas. This drew heavily on my own extensive research and field work. The delegates were shocked by some of the abuses that mules are subject to, many of which have gone unnoticed because, until now, there has been a lack of interest, understanding and education on this subject.
Day two of the meeting explored in depth the various solutions that, with the support of the local muleteers, will now be adopted by the industry over the months ahead. Amongst these are initiatives to introduce a maximum weight limit of 80kg, to introduce head collars and humane tethers as alternatives to the terrible tethering injuries and to introduce bitless bridle systems as an alternative to the brutal traditional bits that currently destroy the mouths of the mules here in the Atlas.
Chris Short, of Far Frontiers Expeditions and the Expedition Providers Association – who was instrumental in initiating and organising the conference - summed up the conference’s achievements as follows:
“I believe that when schools, adults, travellers come to Morocco they are disturbed by the obvious overloading of the mules that are used. That’s a fact. They are then shocked when the muleteer jumps on the load. The next thing … the bits are medieval and everything about them tells you that they are wrong! It is unbelievable torture. The injuries and distress caused by the bits have gone unnoticed.
The loads are noticeable but the bits are not. Once pointed out it is hideous!!
In my head, I have three wishes:
- To eradicate those bits in the mouth.
- To get those loads into something that is and looks acceptable.
- To stop guys sitting on mules when they are loaded.
The muleteers have bought in to using head collars and the loads I know we can handle with our ground handler, Mohamed.”
Outcomes and Action Plans
The most significant outcomes of the meeting was a commitment from all the companies to insist that no traditional bits are used by their team of regular muleteers and that the weight limits are respected and tethering practices improved. These (and many other) action points will now be integrated into the companies’ contracts and standard operating procedures. The muleteers, for their part, agreed to restart their local Association, which had become defunct. This will provide a local organisation with whom we can partner and work to advance the cause of mule welfare across the industry.
Looking ahead, there will be a need for further ongoing training. In the next few days, The Donkey Sanctuary will be providing training for the head muleteers in the use of head collars and bitless bridle systems. Then, later in the season, there will be mule care and handling training days organised for the muleteer teams of many of the companies who attended this conference.
It remains for us to thank all those who attended and all those who worked so hard to make this conference possible. In particular we would like to express our gratitude to our hosts at the Kasbah du Toubkal and to Lahcen Igdem for his energy and support throughout. Special thanks are also owed to Chris Short and Steph Lane of Far Frontiers Expeditions, to Ellen Cochrane of Gaia Horsemanship and to Mustapha Bentaleb.