Argan trees have been used for millenia by the Berber people of Morocco to produce a nutritious, edible oil also valued for use in cosmetics and medicines. During the past two decades, argan oil has soared in popularity and price to become the world's most expensive oil (about $300/liter).

The argan tree only grows in southwest Morocco. Families with access to the trees benefited economically and often used that wealth to send their daughters on to secondary education and buy more goats, reports a team of researchers led by Travis Lybbert of the University of California at Davis in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Unfortunately, those newly bought goats may be devouring the tree equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg.

“Our research indicates that while the argan oil boom seems to have benefited locals and improved educational opportunities, especially for girls, it has not improved the forests and may actually have led to their degradation,” said Lybbert in a UC Davis press release.

Just when things were looking up for families in southwestern Morocco, goats started climbing the precious argan trees, eating their leaves and stunting their growth. (Speaking of looking up, you probably shouldn't when arboreal goats are around.)

The researchers studied satellite maps from 1981 to 2009 to observe how the forests had been affected by the argan oil boom.

The UC Davis study implicates the pointy headed plant-eaters as the main threat to the rare argan trees. The trees are now endangered and under the protection of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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Over-enthusiastic harvesting is another problem for the trees. As people try to maximize profits, and get the most from each tree, they also damage the tender buds of next year's growth.

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Goats foraging in an argan tree (Abedellah Aboudrare/Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture)

Goats foraging in an argan tree (Abedellah Aboudrare/Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture)

A goat herd on the ground, argan tree in background (Abedellah Aboudrare/Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture)