Dung and Dudus
Cover photo: If you want to get to grips with fieldwork, a hands on approach is always best.
By Josh Clay
I don’t know about you, but I love the smell of elephant poo.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of this most satisfactory olfactory sensation, I would describe it as being a thick, musky scent that is utterly wild and unmistakeably elephantine. I am fortunate to have become rather well acquainted with the potent odour of Chanelephant No 5 over the past few weeks. It blows thickly on the dry season breeze making it rather easy to locate, and it isn’t just me that is quick to seek it out. By the time you arrive at the scene, you are often witness to an invertebrate orgy that’s either in full swing or just past its climax. A smorgasbord of beetles, flies, and butterflies, all woozy and love drunk from bathing luxuriously in filth, with several others staggering to their next faecal festival like revellers trickling from a New Year’s Party.
It may be difficult to believe but rummaging through elephant dung is not something the folks at E&B do of a Sunday afternoon, nor is it some kind of STE coprol punishment. There is a very good reason why we inspect it, and that is to try and deduce whether the dung contains any evidence that their depositor has been dining on farmers’ crops. It is therefore an important aspect of the data we collect (or at least, that is what they told me…), because the dung’s size, consistency, and proximity to urine can give clues as to whom and how old the culprits are. For instance, rough and undigested plant matter in the stool would indicate that it was from an older elephant on its last set of teeth. Elephants go through six sets of molars throughout their lives. In some harsh evolutionary quirk, elephants must make do with their final set of teeth until they have ground down so much that they are unable to digest food, at which point they essentially starve to death.
One of the best methods for divining the contents of this doo-doo is the highly technical system of “wading in with your hands”, and as I write this, I can hear my mum imploring me to wash them several times over. The smell is rather difficult remove, but I am delighted to inform you that it leaves a rather pleasant and sweet aroma. The lengths to which we go in the name of “Science” and “conservation” are nothing in comparison to some vets in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand…
It seems that in Harry’s absence (see “Life in the Undergrowth”), I have now assumed the role of the camp’s resident mzungu oddball. If the previous paragraphs haven’t cleared that up already, last week, Emmanuel our beehive fence officer, tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that: “There is a large bug outside. You like these things, come and have a look at it.” As I followed him out into the courtyard, I couldn’t help smiling at the fact that I have reached sufficient levels of nature nerdiness to be dragged from my desk to inspect a “bug”. And what a bug it was. Emmanuel had spotted a giant scarab beetle. I later discovered that these beetles are markedly sexually dimorphous and so the it was in fact a she.
Caption: What a stunner. Photo: Josh Clay
Smooth, bulbous, and a rich dark brown, she moved with purpose across the orange courtyard, and I scooped her up to inspect her as she continued to crawl around my hand. The morning sun highlighted a fine set of curled hairs on either side of her thorax and head which made her look like she had rather delightful dark lashes. After taking several photos, I showed the rest of the team my exciting find. It is always a source of personal amusement presenting the latest specimen to the rest of the office and there is usually a broad spectrum of reactions which range from irritable disgust, to shrugged indifference and occasionally delighted curiosity. It was lukewarm across the board on this occasion.
I placed her in a thick bit of bush and after a bit of internet searching, found out that she is part of the Heliocoprisgenus. I couldn’t be sure which species she belonged to as the females tend to look quite similar, and thanks to an article in The Coleopterist’s Bulletin (a journal just begging to be used on Have I Got News For You’s ‘Guest Publication’ section), I was informed that there are around 47 different species, most of which live on the African continent. These are some of the largest beetles in the world and charmingly, their names reflect scientists’ evident appreciation of their size, with: H. colossus, H. dominus, H. gigas, H. samson, and H. tyrannus being among some of the most evocative. Helio- derives from the name of the Ancient Greek god Helios, the personification of the sun, who drove his chariot across the sky bringing with him the sun and each passing day. Copris after the Greek word: copros meaning, you may have guessed it, poo. The word lends itself to the discipline of coprology, the study of faeces and quite literally a crap profession.
Yet, whilst science’s nomenclature is dominated by Greek and Latin, it is the Ancient Egyptians who were history’s most famous appreciators of scarab beetles. Physical attributes convey a lot of significance for cultures using pictorial writing systems such as hieroglyphics. They saw in the fastidious quotidian rolling by Scarabaeus sacer the physical representation of their minor god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each day. It was not just the sacred scarabs’ behaviour that had solar similarities, they also have fourteen “projections” or undulating bumps on their two front legs and head which to the Ancient Egyptians resembled the rays of the sun. These little beetles represented rebirth and new life, and the word Khepri meant both “scarab” and “to come into existence”.
Caption: The neat rays of Scarabeus sacer immortalised on a relief in the Temple of Edfu, built around 237-57 BC.
Photos: ©Wikipedia and © 2015 wanderlord.com
If that isn’t enough, scarabs’ have an inbuilt celestial compass which they use to orient themselves through the undergrowth. They roll dung backwards, and to ensure they don’t end up going round in circles, they always roll the balls in a straight line away from their quarry.
Caption: Video of dung beetle rolling ball of elephant dung.
Diurnal scarabs use the difference in light from the sun to maintain a straight line and scientists have discovered some nocturnal species use the light from the Milky Way to maintain their sense of direction.
These are therefore quite a remarkable group of dudus, and I recently had the joy of witnessing a scarab busily rolling its neat spherical bounty while out conducting a crop raid assessment. However, there are plenty of people that are much less likely to share my delight at this spectacle, notably, the farmers on whose fields these bug bonanzas erupt. Their sentiments are entirely justified, for to them, these mounds of dung are conspicuous reminders that an elephant has recently trampled over their livelihood.
One farmer who is seemingly always on the receiving end of crop raids is the indomitable Mzee Wabongo. This man is a legend. If anyone is deserving of the moniker Mzee, it is him. Every time we visit his farm, he is always in good spirits and greets us generously with a wry, toothy grin which peels from his wizened face. His eyes, although sunken and glassy, still glow with a youthful cheekiness, and unlike most farmers, he always accompanies us as we assess his hives. He walks slowly and talks animatedly, interchanging between Sagalla and KiSwahili with the odd word of English.
In one corner of his farm resides an equally venerable baobab (Adansonia digitata). They are a common sight here and dominate this landscape; sentinels who have witnessed the coming and going of animals, people, and seasons for potentially more than a thousand years. Just like Mzee Wabongo, this tree is advanced in years, yet also full of life, and it produces a large crop of fruit which he collects and constantly tries to give us, often by the sackful. These fruits are always free and impossible to reject, and he gives them to you with all the persuasion of a doting grandparent who insists you haven’t been eating enough.
Caption: Spectacular boughs, unbowed for hundreds of years. Photo: Josh Clay
Mzee Wabongo has been using Elephants & Bees fences for almost ten years and his hives are generally well stocked with bees, but his acre plot is bordered on three sides by dense bush. In an area where plots are being etched out of the remaining commiphora-acacia bush with increasing regularity, elephants have fewer options to avoid human settlements as they make their way to and from both Tsavo parks and the neighbouring wildlife ranches. However, these elephants don’t usually trample over crops by accident. There is a lot of evidence to suggest they are quite fond of crop raiding, and Mzee Wabongo’s farm is on the frontline. It’s not just elephants he has to contend with. Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) are always up to mischief and break into hives and about a month ago, a spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) took one of his goats. He showed us the hole where the peg and goat had been with a chuckle and has since made a small boma from thorn bushes to protect his remaining three. It is already difficult to make a living from farming here, let alone doing it as an octogenarian.
This season the short rains were sadly just that, and most farmers’ crops only attained a tantalising foot or so of growth before beginning to wither. When crops fail, having an alternative source of income can be vital, and the money generated from the sale of E&B honey can make a big difference. The efficacy of these hives as a deterrent also means that when the rains are good and the crops do grow, the chances of me or other members of the E&B team having to sift through dung will also be reduced. Whilst that may be a slight shame for me, it is a huge benefit for the farmers and probably most of the E&B team!
Caption: The great man under the great tree. Photo: Naiya Raja
Boma – an enclosure usually consisting of thorny bushes or wood, primarily for animals.
Dudu – an insect.
Mzee – an older person; an elder (often used as a title of respect).
Mzungu – a white person, literally translated as “someone who roams around”, or “a wanderer”.
The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants