There is far more to the African wilderness than open plains, big game and vast herds . There is a smaller side to the African wild that, although less visible, is just as fascinating as Africa’s big attractions. In this chapter I detail some of the fascinating happenings often overlooked by the majority of safari-goers.
Today with all our gadgets we are able to cover great distances in a short space of time, allowing us to satisfy our need for instant gratification. People on safari want to view a wide range of big game in a matter of hours and feel hard done by if they miss something. We are also able to communicate over distances, allowing others to assist in finding the big game that we are now so tuned to believing is the real wilderness experience. We are so focused on hurriedly looking around that we’ve all stopped looking down.
I have often been ridiculed for my fascination with ‘dung and dust’. In today’s mindset, a wilderness experience is considered primarily a big five one. This presumptuous wilderness idea, makes it especially difficult to explain why I spend time photographing and studying the fecal deposits of animals.
Our ancestors, distant and not so distant, understood a sign on the ground without even needing closer inspection.
Our ancestors, distant and not so distant, understood a sign on the ground without even needing closer inspection. They could tell from what animal it came, how old and in the case of dung, what it would contain. With them there was not the same rush to see as much as possible in a short space of time. They were part of the wilderness and understood the aspects intimately.
Animal dung contains a great deal of information such as: what the animal eats, whether it is a browser, grazer, omnivore or carnivore. From this information it may be possible to determine where the animal ‘hangs out’. Scratching through animal dung can be likened to reading an exciting detective novel.
A lion scat I was once reading contained half a finger. After my initial surprise had worn off I looked closer and realized that it was the finger of a baboon that the lion had made a meal of.
Much of the research on the feeding habits of mammals is done by monitoring dung. It is difficult for researches to monitor their subject constantly; collecting and analysing dung is still one the most efficient methods of determining what the animal has eaten and consequently where it has been.
The digestive systems of animals differ from species to species. The hyena has a system that enables it to digest bones, resulting in the dung of hyenas being white from the calcium and very well digested, but occasionally a hair of the prey will remain.
The digestive system of an elephant isn’t very effective and food passes through the system quickly ensuring that the dung still has a great deal of nutrients in it, providing for a host of animals. Warthogs, baboons, monkeys and many bird species can be observed scratching around in a dung pat looking for seeds, fruit and particles of leaves and grass.
Dung is also essential for the propagation of numerous plant species. Birds and other species feed on fruits and move off into another area where they will release the half digested seeds in their dung. The seeds will germinate, thereby ensuring the propagation of the species.