Don't let this picture get your goat. It isn't fake. It isn't photoshopped. There are actually nine goats up in this tree. And it's a pretty common occurrence in the semi-deserts of southwest Morocco.
This eye-catching phenomenon occurs in argan (or argania spinosa), a thorny tree with a gnarled trunk endemic to southwestern Morocco and a small section of western Algeria.
Argan trees produce a fruit that must smell and taste delicious because it attracts goats up onto their branches.
Argan trees generally grow to be between 26 and 33 feet tall. And these quirky little goats have no qualms about scampering out on branches, 30 feet off the ground, in search of the tree's bitter fruit.
An argan fruit looks like a shriveled golden apple and some people say it has an aroma like one. The fruit is firm, has a thick peel, and contains a bitter fleshy pulp around an almond-shaped nut that resembles a dried olive.
That pulp is what the tree goats love. Here's the rub, though: They eat the whole fruit, despite the fact that their bodies can't digest the nut. So what becomes of it?
From poop to riches
Argan nuts pass through the digestive system of a tree goat whole. Once they are excreted, people gather them from the goat's droppings and crack them open to expose the seeds inside.
Argan nuts contain anywhere from one to three oil-rich kernels. These kernels are then roasted, ground, mashed or cold-pressed to produce argan oil, one of the most highly sought after culinary and cosmetic liquids in the world.
At Sephora, this 1.7 ounce bottle of argan oil goes for $48. It has nearly 6,000 reviews and they are primarily favorable. Translation: tree goat stock is on the rise.
Edible oil harvested from goat's poop? Some might find that a gross concept, but there are actually several expensive products around the world that pass through the digestive systems of animals.
At $500 a pound, Black Ivory Coffee, for example, is the most expensive Cup of Joe in the world and it's made from beans that have been handpicked from the dung of elephants in the Golden Triangle area of Thailand.
At $300/L or more, argan oil has become a booming business that has bettered the prospects of many rural Moroccan families, both economically and educationally. In fact, an analysis of Morocco's enrollment data from 1981 to 2009 by the University of California, Davis, even concluded that the rise in argan oil production is directly linked to more Moroccan girls being able to attend secondary school.
Manufacturers and development agencies the world over have been quick to promote the win-win component of argan oil production. That is, as Moroccan families make more money and buy up more tree goats to harvest argan nuts, it is both beneficial for the local people andthe health of the argan forest... or so they would have you believe.
However, a 2011 PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) study found that the boom which has allowed many rural households to increase their goat herds and thus, their argan consumption, may actually be negatively impacting the long-term health of argan forests.
Goats are the primary threat to argan forests; not because they consume the trees' fruit, but because their hooves take a toll on the trees' branches.
Even after noshing, these goats will often linger on the ends of branches, just looking out at the horizon... excellent for photos and tourism, not so good for trees.
The goats love doing it, though.
A study on the Ingestive behavior of goats grazing in the Southwestern Argan (Argania spinosa) forest of Morocco found that, on average, these animals graze on argan trees 387 minutes per day. That's over 6 hours... more than a quarter of their day.
Argan accounts for between 47 percent and 84 percent of a tree goat's diet, depending on the season. They will graze both beneath the tree and up in its aerial leaves.
Perhaps the goats enjoy eating argan so much because it's chock-full of vitamin E and all those essential fatty acids make them feel better. Human consumers around the world certainly feel that way. The super food has even been hailed as an ingredient with the ability to reduce cholesterol.
Meanwhile, Israel is hopping on the argan oil bandwagon.
An Israeli company, named Sivan, has created a special strain of argan trees that are tolerant to the Mediterranean climate and can produce 10 times more nuts than their Moroccan equivalent.
What's more, they're resistent to soil disease, and Sivan is harvesting their fruit without the aid of any goats.
...which brings up an important point.
Experts note that the answer to Moroccan forest conservation and sustainability is not the grounding of goats. Many women in the country have begun producing argan oil by hand; and for the most part, the human harvesting is no more environmentally friendly.
Not to mention, if Moroccans ground these famous tree-climbing goats, an important source of tourism could likely dry up and, in doing so, badly damage the country's economy.
The answer, instead, may lie in the development of more sustainable practices and the harvesting of new strains in other countries throughout the world... maybe even argan bushes.