Waist High in an Elephant Bath
I once fell into an elephant bath as we were walking back from a long day measuring elephant dung balls. Typical. Just when I thought my acquaintance with elephant toilet habits could get no more intimate.
The elephants of Uganda’s Kibale Forest National Park are migratory. They leave their mark everywhere. Trees stripped for browsing give an indication of their height. Wallow holes by their depth (I can testify) provide an idea of the bathing elephant’s bulk. But for good, reliable information of the kind we needed for our large mammal census, nothing beats a ball of dung. The diameter of each ball furnishes the size of that particular elephant’s anus. And as the anus is proportional to body size, we can deduce the dimension of the elephant and estimate its age. Clever, eh? The data gathered by our project from walking six transects through the forest was used to estimate the number of infant, juvenile, sub-adult and adult elephants in the park.
Elephants and their toilet habits play a vital part in forest biodiversity, not least as regards seed dispersal. We found seedlings of the balanites tree in many a pile of dung. We measured these to determine roughly when the elephant had passed this way. More importantly, however, balanites seeds are dispersed exclusively through elephant dung. Research suggests that they may even require passage through the elephant’s digestive system in order to germinate. A stable population of elephants with a taste for balanites is, therefore, key to maintaining the ecosystem structure and the life that depends on it. Fortunately, nature is wily enough to ensure that elephants don’t neglect their balanites duties. Elephants love balanites because it gets them drunk. Imagine, four-ton pachyderms out to paint the forest red, last one’s a loser! Elsewhere in the forest, chimps chatter and shriek over ripe figs, and monkeys love the wild coffee (could be good for the hangover). This is how the forest works. It’s one big party – followed by a bath.
And that was where I found myself, in with both feet and sinking deeper into the gloop. Elephants like to wallow to keep their skin soft, cool and free of parasites. They spend so much time in the mud that they tend to assume the colour of the local soil over their natural grey. So, when I was finally pulled out of that bath, had I taken on the colour of a Kibale Forest elephant? We can’t say for sure because in three months of tracking signs in the park, we never actually saw one. It was only later, on safari in Tanzania, that we finally had the pleasure of putting a face to the dung, as it were.