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Tazekka National Park. In the forest domain of the Atlas deer

The Atlas stag is the story of a resurrection. This animal which would have disappeared from the northern Middle Atlas more than two centuries ago, because of the threats exerted by man, is alive and well today. About 71 individuals now roam a five hundred hectare reserve in the Tazekka National Park, located 46 km southwest of the town of Taza.

A rebirth that occurs after the launch in 1994 of a reintroduction program. This beautiful beast, also called Berber deer (Cervus elaphus var. barbarus), is the only species of deer present on the African continent. It is an endemic species whose only realm is the cork oak and zeen oak forest.

With a height of up to 1.40 meters and a weight of up to 200 kg, the Atlas deer is characterized by a light brown color tending to red in summer and dark brown tending to gray in winter. Its antlers, whose length is a little less than 1 meter, give it areas of definitive superiority.

“The Barbary deer is mostly crepuscular. In summer, deer feed all morning, then in the evening and during the night. In winter, they prefer the day, especially if they can warm up in the sun. On windy days, the deer do not leave the forest and the maquis, ”describes the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Barbary deer (© Cornelius Schlawe)

Back to life

Along with the Barbary sheep reintroduced in Tazekka Park in 1998, the Atlas deer is the emblematic species of this site. We can now observe these two specimens which had disappeared from nature and almost never reappeared, during the hikes offered by the park management. An observation from afar since entry into their enclosure is prohibited. “Visitors can see these species and others from a distance, for example through specially equipped watchtowers which are reserved in advance”, suggests Brahim Ismaili, Director of Tazekka National Park for 12 years.

Brahim Ismaili tells us that the park he runs has previously carried out feasibility studies for the reintroduction of endangered species. “The ultimate goal, he says, is to do rehabilitation in nature, not in enclosures. That is to say, make releases in nature. And we will get there. There is also an ongoing project: the reintroduction of the Magot monkey. It is a unique project both in Morocco and in Africa. The Magot monkey has disappeared from the park and we are trying to reintroduce it”.

For this doctor in biology of animal nutrition and pastoralism, the conservation of rare species requires the conservation of the ecosystem. This is what specialists call the umbrella species. In ecology, an umbrella species is a species whose extent of the territory allows the protection of a large number of other species if this one is protected. “If we keep the umbrella species, we also keep the rare and endemic species. We are going to do a monitoring program for these umbrella species, through surveys throughout the park to get an idea of ​​their abundance, their evolution, etc. “explains Brahim Ismaili. The main mission of Tazekka Park therefore remains nature conservation, like other national parks.

Barbary deer (© Cornelius Schlawe)

Wild

Tazekka fauna includes more than 30 species of mammals including wild boar, Algerian hedgehog, hare, squirrel, porcupine, jackal, fox, weasel, otter, genet and mongoose. In addition, 83 species of sedentary or passing birds. A rich avifauna represented by many species: partridge gambra, yawning wheat, doves of the woods, green woodpecker, chaffinch, jay of the oaks…, etc. On the park site, “one can also observe the majestic flight of several species of birds of prey, such as the Egyptian vulture, the short-toed eagle, the Bonelli’s eagle, the peregrine falcon and the little owl”, indicates the management of the park.

The Tazekka site thus offers visitors picturesque landscapes and a remarkable biological diversity characterized by the presence of very old forest formations, dating back more than 600 years. “It is a park that is distinguished by a great diversity of the ecosystem. It is also a forest park par excellence because the forest estate represents a large and major part of the park, more than 70%. Visitors are first shown the species of shrubs, that is to say the cork oak, the holm oak, the zéen oak and the Atlas cedar. They are also told how to tell the difference between all these species. There are also parts that have been reforested in the park, with for example the Aleppo pine. We also try to raise awareness and supervise associations to respect rare and threatened species that must not be uprooted. Moreover, Law 22-07 prohibits the cutting of certain species and natural objects in general”, explains the director of the Tazekka park.

Cork oak (© Cornelius Schlawe)

“Integrated Management”

A paved road considered touristy crosses the park. “You can discover a number of landscapes thanks to this road. It is divided into two: a regional part and another provincial. The regional road extends from Taza to the Maghraoua spit. And from the Maghraoua spit to Oued Imlil, it is the provincial road. In addition, we have invested a significant amount in the development of the park’s infrastructures, according to the rules of the art, in particular in a certain number of recreational sites”, underlines our interlocutor.

The aim of the park management is to share the management of these recreational sites with local associations, so as to have economic benefits for local populations. Their management has also been delegated to these local associations. “Through this delegation, we have created jobs, at least two jobs per site. And also indirect jobs (transport, sale of local products, etc.)”, informs Brahim Ismaili. A single recreational site can generate a turnover of up to five million dirhams. According to the director of the park, sharing the management with the local population makes it possible to establish a climate of trust while guaranteeing the conservation of nature, especially since the Tazekka National Park covers nearly 14,000 hectares. This zoning was redesigned in the 1990s to integrate the different dynamics of the forest ecosystem, in particular the large holm oak and cork oak forests.

All trails lead to nature

This wealth of landscapes and ecosystems offers hikers an extensive network of trails. “We made a map and a study on the hikes, and we limited the hikes to 30 circuits. These 30 hiking trails represent all parts of the park and its ecosystems. A diversity of the landscape which of course integrates the built heritage and the agricultural assets. Visitors to the park greatly appreciate this diversity. The park is visited all year round, especially during the snowy season and in the spring,” explains the park director.

Of the 30 trails, each one presents particularities with different degrees of difficulty. Thus, there are hikes that are easy and others that are medium to difficult. It all depends on the age category and physical condition. In addition to the ease aspect, there is another element, the representativeness of the park’s ecosystem. “Along a hike, you can find a cave or a built heritage and thus have lunch with the locals, for example. After all, everything depends on the choice of the visitor. If he’s in the mood and can do a tough hike, we can recommend a few. If he wants a simple two hour easy hike, he can find those kinds of hikes in the park. It can also go just two kilometers around the park. We have made sure to have a diversified offer to satisfy all types of hikers,” explains Brahim Ismaili.

To visit the park, the director advises to contact the guides who prepare the hike as well as the details related to accommodation, transport, catering, etc. A single day is not enough. It takes at least two days, a weekend for example. “The Tazekka Park club organizes this type of activity. Generally, the hikers from Casablanca, Rabat or other cities come to make group hikes. The program of activities is organized for them in advance. There is also the association Friouato (caving and mountain tourism) and still others who organize these activities”, suggests our interlocutor.

The park also has a stopover cottage in Ain Bechar open all year round, as well as campsites: Bab Boudir and Ademane, open in July and August. There are also several cafes on the site, the most accessible of which are those of Ras El Ma, Friouato and Bab Boudir.

At the bottom of the abyss

In addition to forest hikes, park clubs also organize caving tours. And due, the park of Tazekka has for specificity to shelter some 60 caves. Taza is rightly nicknamed the capital of caves. Some can be visited without specific instructions while others require specific equipment and a guide trained in caving. “There are all kinds of caves in the park. Some are open to visitors and others reserved for speleologists and caving enthusiasts,” says Brahim Ismaili. Here too, the park’s partner clubs organize visits.

Tazekka Park is home to the famous Friouato cave (the gulf of the wind, in Amazigh), known both nationally and internationally. For the moment, it has not yet reopened, for security problems, following in particular an incident that occurred in 2016. The management of the park is working on it today to open it again to the public. There is also the cave Bouslama which, it is indicated for the visit, even for pupils. Discovered by a French speleologist in 1934, it bears the name of “The Queen of the Caves”. It is characterized by decorations formed by sedimentary rocks over several millennia. In addition, it is distinguished by a remarkable faunal and floristic heritage. “You can visit the caves in the summer, for example, because they have a very cold climate. Our goal is to ensure that the park is visited throughout the year. You should know that it is a place of summering for the inhabitants of Taza, who ultimately enjoy it all year round, even in winter,” concludes the director of Tazekka National Park.

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