efe-epaBy Fatima Zohra Bouaziz Beni Ammar, Morocco

In the Moroccan town of Beni Ammar Zerhoun, donkeys took part in a beauty contest as part of a local festival paying tribute to the cultural significance of the animal in the North African country, where despite its omnipresence it often enjoys a bad rap.

In this unprecedented beauty pageant, six donkeys paraded in front of a panel of 10 judges in the small town situated between the cities of Fez and Meknes, in central Morocco, as part of the 12th edition of FestiBaz.

"My donkey is called Bluetooth because it is fast, I have prepared it for the occasion, it is well fed and shorn, and I don't whip him," Hamza told Efe as he attended the crowds of local children who had gathered around his animal asking to mount it.

Unfortunately for Hamza, Bluetooth came second place in the beauty contest, behind Cleopatra, who was declared winner after little deliberation from the judges due to her strength, good looks and relationship with her owner, Chilali.

The Egyptian ruler's namesake saw off competition from other contenders, both male and female, known as Faithful, Oscar, Sirwa and, of course, Bluetooth.

To the applause of the locals, Chilali held aloft his prizes, which included a sack of barley, a cheque for 2,500 dirhams ($260) and a certificate.

The competition's promoters used the event to highlight the importance of donkey milk, which has been used to treat skin since antiquity. Cleopatra herself is said to have bathed in it.

Similar to human breast milk in its composition, the choice of a female victor in the competition aimed to encourage villagers to keep reproducing the equine species amid a downward trend in donkeys across Morocco, partly due to urban development.

The latest figures from the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture suggest there were 926,000 donkeys in 2009 but the festival organizers insist that this number had since decreased by more than half.

In Beni Ammar, a mountainous town of just over 2,000 people, donkeys are still a ubiquitous form of transport.

FestiBaz's director, Mohamed Belmou, said the donkey population here was in decline, too, thanks to a falling human population, the mechanization of farming and a history of exporting the animal to Spain, where it is used for tourism.

Another highlight of the festival was the race, a 2-kilometer course that attracted a flurry of media attention.

The winner of that race was a two-year old known as Friend, Why Not?

The race and the pageant brought an end to a four-day festival of cultural and artistic activities that aim to end stigmas associated with the animals in Morocco, where they are often stereotypically thought of as lazy or ignorant.

"We just try to do justice this beautiful, faithful animal that has served human beings throughout history, has inspired several philosophers and poets, in addition to being the first architect of the mountain paths," Belmou said. EFE-EPA