Morocco’s traditional medicinal trade in reptiles may be a cause for conservation concern

Monday, 27 March 2017

Herbalist in Marrakesh

A recent article by researchers at Oxford Brookes University has investigated the ongoing illegal trade in reptiles in Moroccan markets.

The article, entitled Reptiles traded in markets for medicinal purposes in contemporary Morocco has been published in the journal Contributions to Zoology.

The medinas of Morocco are the historic hearts of each city where traditional commerce and tourism often overlap. Amidst the hustle and bustle of these busy streets, and often unnoticed by tourists, there continues a burgeoning trade in traditional herbs, oils and animal parts, linked with medicinal practices that stretch back into folklore. 

With the arrival of these new laws, Moroccan authorities are in an excellent place to turn the tide of biodiversity loss which has eliminated iconic species such as lions and, most probably, leopards from the country in the past.

Daniel Bergin, Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group, Oxford Brookes University

Over the course of four trips to Morocco, Oxford Brookes University researchers observed animals being openly sold in markets and squares, despite occasional police presence. This information was handed over to Moroccan government officials to aid in their conservation work. 

Daniel Bergin who works in the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group at Oxford Brookes University said: “With the arrival of these new laws, Moroccan authorities are in an excellent place to turn the tide of biodiversity loss which has eliminated iconic species such as lions and, most probably, leopards from the country in the past. 

“We hope that Moroccan authorities will continue fighting for responsible and sustainable use of wild animals.” 

With almost 100 species, Morocco is one of the Mediterranean countries with the highest diversity of reptiles, around 25 of which only occur within the country. Historical accounts of traditional medicine practices in Morocco date back to the 1800s in which chameleons are described as being used for witchcraft and to ward off the evil eye. 

Today, animals are used for much the same purposes as they were hundreds of years ago. In the alleyways and lanes of the maze-like medinas, traditional healers use lizards, chameleons, tortoises and snakes for ailments including insomnia, bad eyesight, and good luck charms when building a home. 

Daniel, who has visited the markets, also described the trade as ‘completely open, widespread and common to any large traditional market’. He continued: “When speaking to Moroccan authorities, they made clear their desire to enforce the new wildlife conservation laws but feared for lack of resources. We hope that our work can help them identify areas of importance so they can efficiently target unscrupulous vendors”. 

While the importance of recording and preserving traditional beliefs goes without saying, the increasing scale of this trade recently forced Moroccan authorities to bring in laws regulating the removal of animals from the wild, for these and other purposes. Despite these laws, even in Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna square (‘Assembly of the Dead’), one of Morocco’s busiest tourist spots where law breakers once faced public capital punishment, now the laws put in place to protect animals are broken on a daily basis.

The full article can be found on the Contributions to Zoology website.

Image: A herbalist in Marrakesh with Nile crocodile and African rock python skins used partially as advertisement of the medicinal products within. African rock python skins are also used as a relief for asthma.