Geography & Wildlife
The ‘island’ of Morocco
In a sense, Morocco is an ‘island’, surrounded by the Atlantic to the west, the Mediterranean to the north and the Sahara’s vast ‘sea’ of sand to the south.
The country has four mountain ranges which add to the insular feel. Acting like huge barricades, the Rif Mountains stretch along the Mediterranean, while the Middle-, High- and Anti-Atlas mountains run in a diagonal swathe down the middle of the country from the north-east to the south-west.
The High Atlas chain reaches 4,165 metres at the peak of Jbel Toubkal. Snow-topped for half the year, the mountains are a visible and dominant feature of Morocco’s geography. The scenery of the region is dramatic, from the high peaks and forested slopes, to the wide flat valleys and deep gorges carrying the many streams and rivers flowing down.
Wildlife and the not-so-wild
Morocco’s native mammal species include foxes, jackals, genets, hyenas, panthers, gazelles and the famous Barbary ape.
However, with livestock numbering around 28 million (excluding mules, horses and camels), the most common animals to be seen are sheep, goats and cattle. Mouflons or wild mountain sheep also inhabit the Atlas region; these are indigenous to North Africa and the forbear of all the world’s varieties.
Most of Morocco’s wild animals are nocturnal and may only be glimpsed at dawn or dusk (or in the headlights of a car). However, some can be heard through the night. Near water, a variety of frogs and toads – including the Berber, Green and Mauritanian toad – strike up a nightly chorus.
Some of Morocco’s birds – such as the striped hoopoe – arrive in migrant flocks for the mild winter from October to March .
Birds are the most impressive and visible part of Morocco’s wildlife. The country has over 450 species, including many rare birds such as the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis.
Across parts of Morocco, forests of cork and evergreen oak can be found in humid mountainous areas, while junipers and pines grow on drier slopes. Walnuts, poplars and wild almonds are common trees of the valleys.
In the steppe or semi-desert areas, scrubland is widespread, though certain species of shrubs, such as jujube and tamarisks, thrive on arid plains. In the oases of the southern desert, date palms are cultivated.
An ancient survivor from when this part of Africa had a tropical climate, the argan tree is unique to the south western region of the Atlantic Coast, surviving on the moisture of the ocean mists. Looking like a woolly version of the olive, the trees are grazed by climbing goats and produce nuts which are harvested to make a prized cooking oil. No part of the nut is wasted, with the flesh used as animal feed and the shell for fuel. Recognising the argan’s rarity, UNESCO declared the Essaouira-Agadir region a protected biosphere.