Stunning views, epic summits, great days out in the mountains of Morocco: all made possible by… the humble mule. Here at The Mount Toubkal we are very aware that we have a responsibility not only towards our clients and staff but also for the welfare of the mules who are so vital to our treks.
Which is why our Imlil-based staff have been particularly grateful to get to know and work alongside Glen Cousquer, current President of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders (BAIML). Living in Imlil on a part-time basis, Glen is trained vet and is working on a PhD looking into the welfare of mules within the mountain tourism industry. He is also heading up a lot of the local initiatives for pack mule welfare here in the High Atlas Mountains, working in collaboration with a number of partners, including The Donkey Sanctuary, the Expedition Providers Association.
Glen training a local mule
We sat down with Glen in Kasbah du Toubkal at 10:30 in the morning recently and asked him more about his work here in Imlil valley:
M-T: Glen, firstly, what brought you to the High Atlas Mountains?
Glen: I first visited the High Atlas Mountains twenty years ago and was blown away by the beauty of the mountains. Mountain life, however, is very hard – for the people and their animals. I saw firsthand just how much the mules working in tourism suffered. Back in 1995, I saw one mule on a trek I was on that was very ill and in great pain due to a nasty sore on her back. The team had no protocol for dealing with such situations and for the muleteer to abandon the trek, meant losing his work.
I came back in 2008 to try and study how the industry could better meet its responsibilities to these hard-working mules and their owners. This led me to produce a syllabus and course on pack mule care for the Mountain Guide Training school here in Morocco. Between 2009 and 2015, I was responsible for delivering that course and for training the next generation of guides.
In the last two years, I have been based predominantly in Imlil valley and have been able to get to grips with some of the complexities of the mule’s life and wellbeing.
M-T: What drives you to seek to better the mules’ welfare in Morocco?
Glen: Good question. I think that I fundamentally believe that the mountains give mankind so much and they have certainly given me a lot. They are fragile places, however, and we need to look after them. For me, it is very important to give something back, to make sure they are not exploited irresponsibly.
And it is quite obvious to me that those who cannot stand up, cannot speak, cannot be heard, are easily exploited. The mountains are exploited. Mount Toubkal is all too easily exploited. And, of course, the mule is exploited.
The mule that was overloaded and injured in a fall
Tourists care about this. Many of the better agencies care about this. But they often don’t know enough about the problem and even when they do understand, they don’t know what to do.
The industry does not have the resources needed to solve this problem. They can make small fixes and small changes but the problems go much deeper than that. That is why I believe that my work can make a difference, can provide alternatives and can encourage people to adopt practices that promote good mule welfare.
M-T: What initiatives have you started here and why? And what other areas can you see that need to change?
Glen: There are a number of initiatives. Amongst the problems, we have identified and that really impact on the mule, three stand out. These are overloading, mouth injuries caused by the use of the traditional bit and the pain and frustration associated with traditional tethering practices.
- Overloading can lead to saddle sores and is also responsible for tendon and joint injuries that will go on to trouble these poor mules for the rest of their lives. Just this morning, Hassan, and I, together with Mohamed went to see a mule that had fallen over a 100m drop somewhere above Inman Valley (Tachedirt). She had a nasty wound on her leg but fortunately had not broken a leg. Breaks spell disaster here for mules as there is no tradition of euthanizing mules. In the case of this mule, it was very clear that she was thin, old and very weak. She had also been overloaded. Hardly surprising then that she fell! Sadly, these stories are commonplace, especially with companies that do not check the mules on departure and make sure basic standards are respected.
- The traditional bit is a medieval instrument that allows a man to control the mule thorough pain and fear. It has no place in a good relationship based on trust, respect and understanding. The same can be said of tethering.
- There are many other problems though, including the lack of health care and insurance. Good handling and training are rare here, food is often deficient in quantity and quality and the standard of farriery and foot care is appalling.
M-T: What is your long-term vision and dream for the mules of the High Atlas Mountains?
Glen: In an ideal world, the industry would move towards a set up in which the muleteers were more respected and were not exploited. They should have access to healthcare themselves and deserve to be pulled into the social security system. In the same way that the trekking industry recognizes its responsibilities to porters across the world, it needs to recognize its responsibility to muleteers.
So the muleteers benefit. But their mules need to benefit too! They need better working conditions. They need good equipment (including humane tethers and good quality head collars), protection from overloading, good food, shelter at altitude, health care, rest and even retirement.
That may be a lot to ask just now but we should not forget that in the UK this battle was fought for pit ponies nearly one hundred years ago. Their working conditions improved as a result and it became harder to exploit them as a source of power and labor.
In a few words, we need to care about these mules.
Training muleteers to use the bitless bridle
M-T: What can people do to get involved and contribute to the initiatives?
Glen: People need to ask questions of the companies they are traveling and trekking with. Do these companies apply any code of good practice when working mules?
Is that code audited?
What numbers of mules are provided for a certain size of the group?
What is the load limit set for the mules?
Are all the mules worked free from the traditional bit?
How long has the owner had his mule and do they have a good relationship?
I am glad to say that The Mount Toubkal and Morocco guides are taking a real interest in these issues and are working hard to put a system in place that will improve the welfare of the mules they use. They have recently started collaborating with The Donkey Sanctuary to provide training for their muleteers.
Thank you to Glen for this interview! We look forward to continuing in our partnership with you to improve the lives of the mules and muleteers of the High Atlas Mountains.