Project on Human-Reptile Interactions in Morocco

Should we define wilderness by absence of human impact? Or are humans as much a part of an ecosystem as plants or any other animal?

Although some humans currently race to save the world’s last remaining bits of “wilderness” in the face of habitat loss and climate change, few seem to consider people a part of that wilderness. Conservation efforts more often than not focus on “saving” wilderness from any type of human impact. However, we need to face the reality that our species does play a role in ecosystems all over the world. Perhaps we could even take advantage of the mutual importance of humans and their ecosystems to further certain types of conservation efforts, since people will likely care more to preserve aspects of Earth’s wilderness that play a role in their own lives than those that exist only as some untouchable, abstract idea of nature.

This year, while on a Fulbright research scholarship in Morocco, I plan to dissect some of the ways that people and their environment influence each other. I will focus on people’s interactions with one of my favorite groups of organisms: reptiles. While the primary literature is full of papers documenting the importance of reptiles in many cultures, little comprehensive work seems to exist for Morocco despite accounts suggesting diverse uses of and cultural views on reptiles. Therefore I would like to explore the ways in which Moroccans and reptiles affect each other’s lives, a relationship that might change as reptile populations decline.

The wide range of desert reptiles in Morocco supplies medicinal and commercial purposes. Chameleons, turtles, and tortoises may all have uses in magic or medicine, creating a potential for overharvesting, but also a greater potential human interest in preserving populations of those species. The tortoise Testudo graeca graeca is now threatened, partly due to collection for the international pet trade, traditional medicine, tourist souvenirs involving tortoise carapaces, and habitat loss from human activities. Snake charmers use Egyptian cobras (Naja haje), vipers (Vipera lebetina) and puff adders (Bitis arietans) for their trade. Continued harvesting, habitat loss, climate change, and other factors could cause population declines. The loss of reptile biodiversity will in turn affect human activities dependent on the animals. Traditional medicine and products involving reptile parts will be threatened, snake charmers may have to turn to other species or abandon their profession, and folklore surrounding reptiles may fade. As reptiles suffer, humans will suffer. No research that I have read so far has specifically looked at the possible consequences of reptile declines on humans.

Due to the complexity of human-reptile interactions in Morocco, my research will address two main issues. First is the issue of how Moroccans incorporate reptiles into their lives. Second is that of reptile conservation in Morocco. Both intrinsically link people to their natural environment. Humans function as part of complex ecosystems, making it crucial for at least some environmental studies projects to incorporate anthropology.

A view of Fes: one of Morocco's largest cities, it has been around since the 8th century and still thrives. Photo: Jessica Tingle

A view of Fes: one of Morocco’s largest cities, it has been around since the 8th century and still thrives near the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains.
Photo: Jessica Tingle

Highfield, A. C. and J. R. Bayley. Folklore, myth, and exploitation of reptiles in Morocco and Tunisia. Accessed 11/06/2013.

Greene, H. W. Tracks and Shadows : Field Biology as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2013.

Légey, D. Essai de Folklore Marocain. Paris : Societé Nouvelle Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geunther, S.A. 1999.

Thay Thay, N. Aux origins due monde : Contes et légends du Maroc. Traduction de Banyounes Rhozali. Paris : Flies France, 2001.