Morocco’s Biodiversity Suffers as Rich Locals and Foreign Tourists Hunt for Fun

barbary macaque in Morocco
AL30MK
,
Morocco

Morocco’s Biodiversity Suffers as Rich Locals and Foreign Tourists Hunt for Fun

According to a popular saying: “Man is the most dangerous animal, the only one that hunts for pleasure.” For people in Morocco, a perfect illustration of this came in the summer of 2019, when horrific images spread across social media.

The photographs showed about a dozen men posing with the carcasses of more than a thousand turtle doves, a globally vulnerable species. The hunters were tourists from the Gulf States and they had greatly exceeded quotas set by Moroccan law for shooting the birds.

Saudi hunters pose with the bodies of turtle doves
Saudi hunters pose with the bodies of turtle doves / Credit: Instagram. 

The incident aroused much anger in Morocco. It showed the public the extent to which irresponsible hunting by wealthy and influential elites and tourists can harm local biodiversity. It also raised questions about the role of social media in promoting unsustainable or illegal hunting — nobody would have known about the hunters from the Gulf if they had not boasted about their hauls on Instagram.

But despite public outrage, there is a sense that wealthy elites can break the law with impunity. Meanwhile, citing economic benefits, the Moroccan government aims to greatly increase the number of tourists visiting the country to hunt.

Legal and illegal hunting

Under Moroccan law, the right to hunt belongs to the state. It can sell this right to tourism companies or individuals, who must obtain licenses to carry a weapon and to hunt. Hunters can target a range of species — from partridges, waterfowl, pigeons and doves to hares, wild boars, foxes and other animals.

The Moroccan Department of Water and Forests’s official map shows that there are hundreds of hunting areas spread across the country. Together, they cover more than 3 million hectares. Most of these areas are forest plots that hunting tourism companies rent from the government or private landowners.

The hunting season is usually at the end or middle of the year and, for most people, hunting is allowed only on Sundays and national holidays. But for the tour operators in the rental plots, hunting is allowed four days a week. Wealthy businessmen and senior officials from within and outside Morocco flock to hunting reserves, in the north, east and south of the country, to spend days hunting.

A map showing hunting reserves across Morocco
Just some of the hunting areas spread across Morocco / Credit: Department of Water and Forests.

The legal framework appears to be insufficient to protect wildlife, as many violations are recorded. And, as noted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Maritime Fisheries, Rural Development, Water and Forests in May 2020, illegal hunting increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as law enforcement activities declined due to the lockdown.

“We report problems of overhunting in some areas, especially the nature reserves of the Department of Water and Forests, which is the authority empowered to apprehend violators legally,” says Mostafa El-Aissat, president of the Green Carpet Association, a Moroccan environmental organization that focuses on wildlife conservation.

"We also carry out awareness-raising campaigns about endangered species that are nationally prohibited from hunting, such as some types of birds, ostriches and hawks, plus a group of mammals such as the Dorcas gazelle, in order to maintain the balance of biodiversity and not affect the food chain," says Al-Eissat.

The Moroccan Department of Water and Forests is trying to rehabilitate wildlife, by tightening enforcement of hunting laws and creating reserves for the breeding of some endangered species, such as Barbary macaques and Dorcas gazelles, especially in the forests of the Atlas Mountains.

But at the same time, the government wants to attract more hunters.

According to comments made in 2019 by Abdel Rahim Houmi, the secretary-general for the Moroccan High Commission for Water and Forestry and the Fight Against Desertification, some 3,000 tourists visit Morocco to hunt each year. Another 80,000 local people hunt recreationally. Houmi said the Commission aims to increase the number of hunting tourists to 15,000 annually by 2024.

Pleasure, status and online ‘likes’

Proponents of hunting tourism argue that it helps maintain animal diversity by controlling numbers of certain species, and also contributes to economic development through hunting revenues and job creation. But many environmental activists consider hunting, regardless of whether it is legal or not, to be unethical and ecologically destructive.

Charts showing how many people hunt in Morocco each year and the scale of the sector in terms of revenues, taxes and jobs

Hunting is as old as humanity, but while our ancestors hunted for food, some modern humans prefer to kill animals for pleasure and status. Before the emergence of social media, hunters might have brought home part of their dead prey to hang on their walls as reminders of their victories over the animals. Today, they hunt with their smartphones.

Hunters take smiling selfies with the corpses of their prey, showing off proudly to their virtual followers. They can even find advice — such as in this LinkedIn blog — about how to enjoy posting pictures of a hunting trip without feeling guilty.

“When hunting is an essential part of your identity, it can be very frustrating and annoying to read negative comments online from people who seem to know nothing about it,” it says, adding that: “There will always be people who disagree with you about hunting, but the good news is that these people are a minority.”

Evidence of crimes

Facebook, in particular, has become a platform for spreading hunting culture, whether through competition and bragging among hunters sharing pictures of their kills, or by attracting more people to this activity through hunting groups and pages.

While Facebook's guidelines prohibit content that seeks to buy, sell, trade or donate endangered species, the company has no clear policy on images of animals that hunters have killed. There are concerns that Facebook helps to spread the culture of indiscriminate hunting.

In this context, a study published about seven hunting-related groups on Facebook showed widespread violation of hunting laws in Jordan, with some hunters exceeding the permissible limits by 3,000 percent. In one year, the researchers documented images of 4,707 animals of 59 species on these Facebook groups. Most of which were birds, followed by mammals and reptiles. They included 34 protected species and 10 species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s has classified as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’.

Similarly, a 2017 study of online boasting by sea anglers in Florida, United States, revealed illegal catches of protected species such as lemon sharks, tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks. Such species featured in 620 of 1,527 reported shark catches that the researchers analyzed.

Failure of control

Moroccan hunting groups and pages are also easy to find on Facebook. One includes posts offering hunting lessons, showing hunting equipment, and documenting successful hunts — nothing illegal. But another shows a video of a striped hyena, a species that is endangered in Morocco.

A hyena killed by hunters in Morocco
A screengrab from a video of a dying hyena, targeted for its head / Credit: Facebook. 

The animal is in its death throes, having been illegally shot by hunters. One of the comments below the video says: "The only way that the perpetrators will be held accountable is if they are not bourgeois and wealthy—no one can control those people even if they kill all the hyenas in Morocco."

In this case, by posting the video online, the hunters entrapped themselves. After the video went viral, police arrested two local suspects and discovered the hyena’s body in a deep well. The animal had been killed for its head, which local ‘sorcerers’ claim has magical properties. On 17 May 2022, a court in the city of Beni Mellal convicted both men of killing the animal and sentenced each of them to three months in prison, and a fine of 5,000 dirhams.

Ayoub Mahfoud, head of the National Coordination of Hunting Associations in Morocco, says that while most of the illegal hunting in the country is done by local people outside of the plots hired by tourist hunting companies, that foreign visitors also break the rules.

"There are foreigners who exceed the allowed number of game-prey, due to the failure of control," says Mahfoud.

"The Coordination had previously condemned—and written to the Department of Water and Forests about—the extermination of biodiversity by random hunting trips of Gulf tourists who consider themselves above the law.”

Mahfoud says these tourists often post pictures of their kills on Facebook, and “it is a blow to the feelings of Moroccan hunters in the first place, and for the Department of Water and Forests. Second, this means that there is a failure to monitor and track those violators who cause the extermination of biodiversity, such as deer, Barbary mouflon, wild partridge, hare and dove, during the prohibited reproductive periods.”

Rising pressure

Despite this, Mahfoud supports investment to attract foreign tourists who want to hunt. “Morocco is rich in environmental and natural diversity,” he says. “And [investment would] revive mountain and rural tourism, as well as introduce [tourists to] the [country’s] cultural heritage.”

But as climate change and drought increasingly threaten Morocco’s wildlife, more hunters will add pressure to already-vulnerable species. Hunting has already led to a significant decrease in the numbers of wild animals, especially large mammals, which are now limited to some forested areas. There are concerns that hunting is pushing some of these species, such as Dorcas gazelle and Barbary macaques, towards extinction.

Their declines echo those of species that have already disappeared from Morocco. Just over a century ago, many large animals, such as lions, scimitar oryx and bears, lived here. But today people in Morocco can only see these animals on television or in a zoo, as they are completely extinct in the country. Over-hunting claimed them all.


Khalid Bencherif produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Arabic by AL30MK on 15 June 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: Barbary macaque in Morocco / Credit: Slav Den via Unsplash.

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