Out of Africa…but first a few words about poop

I think Baronness Von Blixen had the right idea: I wants me a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, or, even better, a little shack at the Oloololo Gate, at the northwest corner of Masai Mara, which is without doubt the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life. On our last day there, driving to the airstrip in our open jeep, I watched a lioness saunter down the road towards me. With a switch of her tail, she strolled past me to join her cubs, who were playing under an acacia tree on the other side of the road.

Right now you’re bracing yourselves for pictures of Big Cats, sunsets, maybe an adorable monkey.  That’s all coming, I promise, but this post is about something else. This post is about ecological balance, the circle of life, the perfect synergy of nature.

In other words, this post is about poop, which, in its own way, is as perfect as the lioness I saw on my last day.  As one of the naturalists who took us on a “walking safari” said, poop isn’t just shit.

Take this, for example:

Yep, that’s elephant poop.  And a rather small offering, compared to some other piles we saw.  Elephant poop, it seems, is filled with lots of undigested material, including seeds and even small seedlings, which eventually (if not eaten by some other creature) will sprout, fertilized by the poop.  Fresh elephant poo is sometimes eaten by baby elephants, because the poo contains all kinds of bacterias and enzymes that the baby elephants need to line their own digestive tracts (think: live culture yogurt). And then of course, sometimes dried dung can be burned for fuel; and it can also be compacted into balls, wrapped in old plastic bags, and voila, a soccer ball for village kids.

Here’s a different kind of poop:

 It sort of looks like a big blob of toothpaste, doesn’t it? Nope. It’s hyena poop and it’s white because hyenas eat bones. They’re part of “the cleanup crew:” vultures, buzzards, hyenas, and jackals. Nice bunch, eh? Hyenas eat flesh, but they also eat bones, so their poop is almost pure calcium.  And then these little beetles need the calcium, so they come along and eat the poop. It’s a win-win poop-based relationship.

But the piece-de-resistance of poop has to be this sample:

 What’s that, you ask? Isn’t it just more elephant poop?

Oh no, my friends, not at all. That is hippo poop. While the hippo is doing his business, he spins his tail around and spreads the poop as widely as he can, on bushes, trees, shrubs, rocks. (Note to self: never to stand behind a hippo, for fear of being be-pooped.)  Their poop works on the trail-of-breadcrumbs method: Hippos spend the day in the river staying cool and then at night, they lumber up to the grasslands to graze. But because hippos are so territorial (each family group has its own section of river), if a hippo should inadvertently splash into the wrong part of the river, he would face the wrath of other hippos.  The path of poop ensures that each hippo family finds its way back to the right part of the river.  You can see the hippo paths–surprisingly narrow for such wide creatures–leading away from the river up to the grasslands, and bespeckled all along with the hippo version of road signs.

See? Poop isn’t just shit. Without poop? There’d be nothing, not even this:

Does anyone know how I get a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills?




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15 Responses to Out of Africa…but first a few words about poop

  1. Susan W, July 24, 2012 at 2:36 am #

    You’re absolutely right, but this picture and your post makes me think about the sad state of things… that wonderful ecological balance is rapidly becoming unbalanced, and the conditions in the preserve are getting to be highly exceptional.

    • Deborah Quinn July 24, 2012 at 4:23 am #

      exactly (next post’s topic) – seeing the balance of all things so up close like that made me realize A) how perfect the balance is; and B) how fragile the balance is as well… it’s terrifying, actually, and desperately sad to think that as a species we’re so hellbent on ruining it all… sigh

  2. Kim at Mama Mzungu July 24, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Love this post. Hilarious *and* educational! Yes. Poop is so very multi-functional. I’ve seen homes made from it and bread baked nearly in it. Your tour guide sounds a lot better than ours. Can’t wait to hear/see more!!

  3. Arnebya July 24, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    I crave the ability to go onto any kind of safari. I am addicted to Discovery, especially the Planet Earth series which I’ll watch repeatedly. I knew about hippo and elephant poop, but not about hyenas. It’s all so amazing and fascinating. And then of course I think about how animals are extinct and we kill others so easily. Z is into Charlotte’s Web right now. Charlotte says to Wilbur, when he makes a face about her eating insects, something to the effect that if there were no spiders, the insects would overtake the barn. It’s a balance. It’s a balance we are royally effing up.

    • Deborah Quinn July 27, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

      My kids were struck by something one of our guides said – that humans are the only animal that kills for sport. The boys must have repeated that to me, mm…230 times? And it’s true – and horrifying. Especially when you see these creatures close up…it’s that much harder to imagine seeing an elephant, for instance, and thinking “yeah, let’s kill it!” Effed up, indeed.

  4. Gina July 25, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    You make poop fascinating! And I learned from your post, that’s for sure. Unlike Arnebya, I didn’t know anything about any of these poops so this was good. Oh boy, I’d love to go on safari. Just love love love that photo of the tree with the cats lounging under (of course, it’s not the ones with the poop examples!)

    I love pondering circle of life things and all things in balance (Yoga?)

    • Deborah Quinn July 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      very yoga-ish, absolutely. that whole circle of life thing stopped being a metaphor, or a cliche, and became reality. The balance of the natural world is amazing – and deeply entrenched…but fragile, too. Quite powerful, no matter how you look at it.

  5. The Bright Side of Life July 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Love it. I have never read a poop blog post before! 🙂 Did you manage to catch sight of a dung beetle, they really are the most fascinating little bugs and spend hours rolling poop all over the place!
    P.S. I live in Africa so I get to see animals in the wild every year.

    • Deborah Quinn August 7, 2012 at 12:05 am #

      where in Africa? Kenya is my new favorite place. I DID see dung beetles and they are fascinating – I actually thought about an entire “dung beetle” post, but thought that might be a little too much dung!

      • The Bright Side of Life August 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

        I live in South Africa! Yes, you could be right, a dung beetle post could be overdoing the dung! 🙂

        • Deborah Quinn August 9, 2012 at 7:01 am #

          we thought about South Africa for this trip, but it’s about 9 hours from Abu Dhabi and we decided to opt for the shorter trip to Kenya this time, instead. Next time!!

  6. Stasha August 10, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    By selling elephant poop and turning it into paper, that turns into profit and buys you a farm?


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