The High Atlas Mountains stretch across central Morocco, rising to 13,671 feet (4,100 m) at Toubkal summit, its highest point. Along the slopes of this range lies the Mediterranean High Atlas Juniper Steppe ecoregion. Moist air from the Atlantic Ocean blows east across this region during the winter, bringing with it most of the rain that falls here annually. The south-facing slopes of this mountain range are more arid, and therefore less wooded, than the northern slopes. At the tops of north-facing slopes, above 12,000 feet (3,600), where the dry, hot winds fail to reach, snow remains for more than seven months of the year. This complex topography and varied climate define a region that is the most species-rich of any area in the entire Mediterranean region of Africa.
Cedar, juniper, pine, and oak forests cover approximately one-third of the ecoregion. At high altitudes, junipers dominate the landscape. Even higher, the forests eventually give way to alpine meadows, pseudo-steppe vegetation, and finally scree slopes where purple cushion plants bloom. River valleys wind through the landscape, their rich, moist soil supporting willows, poplars, oaks, hawthorns, and a carpet of oleander.
Barbary sheep, experts at negotiating steep and rough terrain, climb easily across rocky slopes. The horns of these sheep are long and curved, and their throats, chests, and upper legs are covered in long, tufts of golden hair. These sheep are occasionally hunted by Barbary leopards. Red foxes also hunt here, but their prey is much smaller. The foxes often stand motionless, listening for the faint sounds of mice in the grasses. Suddenly, they leap high into the air and bring their forelimbs straight down, pinning their prey to the ground. Other predators include common jackals, polecats, and ferrets just to name a few.
Cause for Concern
Illegal timber and firewood extraction are currently the most significant threats to the integrity of the ecoregion. Fires, overgrazing, and thousands of years of timber harvesting have played a significant role in the destruction of the forests and the delicate mountain ecology. The reduction in tree cover has in turn led to severe soil erosion.
For more information on this ecoregion, go to the World Wildlife Fund Scientific Report.All text by World Wildlife Fund © 2001