Deep in the valleys of the High Atlas Mountains to the east of Marrakech, young and intrepid British students start their adventurous expeditions by meeting the mules and muleteers who will accompany them along their route. The trips, run by expedition providers based in the UK, give a unique opportunity for the students to challenge themselves, learn new skills for life and work and have an unforgettable Moroccan experience. Sadly for the mules, however, the experience is rarely so positive. Some local muleteers and owners still use dangerous and unnecessary bits that lead to severe mouth injuries and thin, nylon tethers that cut into the legs. In addition, mules are often overloaded which, on long treks through challenging mountainous terrain, can lead to significant discomfort, serious injury or even death.
Four organisations that represent around 90% of the Moroccan expedition market came together this week to talk about mule welfare and to make plans to improve it. Far Frontiers Expeditions, World Challenge, Outlook Expeditions and Camps International were called together by Chris Short (Managing Director of Far Frontiers) to learn about common welfare issues and their prevention from Glen Cousquer, a vet, International Mountain Leader and the president-elect of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders (BAIML). The Donkey Sanctuary and Glen have been collaborating to improve the welfare of expedition mules for over five years (see Glen’s blogs for more information) and I was pleased be able to join Glen and represent The Donkey Sanctuary at the meeting.
Glen said: ‘Although many people think that bad welfare practices are ‘traditional’ ones that won’t change, there is actually no strong tradition of muleteering in this area. Thirty years ago, the mules in the valley could be counted on the fingers of your two hands. Today there are between two and three hundred, all because of the tourist trekking industry.’ The Expedition Providers Association (EPA), of which all four companies are members, have pledged to improve the lives of working animals involved in their expeditions and it is inspiring to see organisations wanting to learn about welfare and taking responsibility towards the animals they have an impact on. In terms of Morocco’s mules, these four organisations are planning to educate owners and leaders on humane tethers with hundreds already on order. Made from recycled climbing rope and soft leather, a local Moroccan women’s association carries out the handiwork to make sure that tethering injuries from thin, nylon strings and rope will be a thing of the past.
Also, thanks to collaboration with The Donkey Sanctuary, a checklist has been put together for EPA members to help the leaders, guides and owners assess and manage the welfare of pack mules. This follows The Donkey Sanctuary’s ‘hands-on’ approach to welfare assessment – a simple tool that enables anyone to make meaningful comments about welfare, even if they have limited experience with donkeys and mules. Also at the meeting was a representative from the Royal Geographical Society’s technical committee who have established a British Standard (BS 8848) across the expedition industry. Excitingly, that committee is now looking to integrate mule and donkey welfare into the scheme, thus providing clear, regulated minimum standards for organisations to maintain throughout their work.
The opportunities for welfare education run deep and the organisations are hoping to involve clients, parents and teachers in prioritising mule welfare, not just in Morocco but also in Ethiopia, South America and other expedition destinations. As a staff member from one of the expedition organisations said today: ‘I think we have a moral responsibility towards the mules that only exist in this area because of our work and we have the opportunity to drive welfare from the ground up by taking an active lead.’ Changes are definitely afoot and, as we move forwards together, I’m excited to see how expedition companies, united by a common vision, can really make a difference to mule welfare.