Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poo, Droppings, Scats - Signs in the bush!.

Poo, Droppings, Scats - Signs in the bush!.

There is an art to visiting game reserves which once learnt, enormously enhances ones enjoyment of the bush. I am not talking about how you camp or how you braai. Nor about where the best game viewing opportunities are or what to do if confronted by an angry elephant. I am talking about reading the bush news. How many times have you heard people complaining about not seeing any animals. And by animals they mean the 'big five' or certainly the big and hairy. They are driving around as detached observers without really seeing all the pieces of the beautiful and colourful mosaic they are moving through. Every plant, every insect, every pile of droppings tells a story about the things going on in that little patch of bush. Even driving a vehicle allows you to stop where you will and closely examine the things around you with the naked eye or close up with binoculars. Of course on foot you are very much a part of things (and if you do happen to get close to large animals you are v ery conscious of this indeed). You can take the time to examine the minutiae of the bush at close range: plants, insects, birds, tracks and the faecal remains or scats of animals that live there or have passed through. Animal droppings are extremely interesting, especially to other animals, carrying by means of scent a great deal of information about the animal which deposits them — size, status, gender and sexual condition among others. Humans, being olfactorily challenged, cannot decipher much of this, but there is a great deal droppings can tell us in addition to what we can glean from spoor. Droppings are also more easily seen in areas where the ground surface makes it difficult to see spoor. Different animals deposit their droppings in different ways and for different reasons. Many territorial animals leave their droppings in heaps called middens which demarcate their territories — these include rhino, hyena and impala. Although it is the territorial male impala that starts a midden others may also use it which confuses the issue a bit — perhaps they are a sort of bush message board. Civets also deposit their droppings in middens known as civetries which may be used by several individuals. Civets produce quite remarkably large scats, as big as a lion's but easily distinguished by the contents. Although civets belong to the viverrids, considered to be the oldest family of carnivores, they are actually omnivorous; the civetries show that they eat insects, fruit (including figs), various diospyrus species and monkey fingers (Friesodielsia obovata), lizards and shongololos among other things — they are one of the few animals that are able to tolerate the noxious chemicals produced by millipedes. Hippos spray their droppings to mark paths and in a ritual to establish dominance among bulls (although legend has it that this is to prove to the creator that they aren't eating his fish). Many types of droppings provide food for other animals — the obvious example is the dung beetle, which feeds and acts as the bush's sanitary engineer at the same time, ably assisted by termites. They are not alone, however; fish feed on hippo dung and hyenas and hooded vultures eat the scats of lions, leopards and wild dogs. Scrub hares eat their own droppings in a process known as coprophagia, which allows them to digest plant matter more efficiently. Baboons, birds and rodents all recycle undigested seeds from various droppings. Elephants are the number one source for this. Elephants produce large quantities of droppings every few hours and they have a very poor digestive system — even a healthy elephant only digests about 40% of what it eats. One can see by looking at elephant dung exactly what it has been eating, unlike the thoroughly processed droppings of ruminants. Twigs, leaves, and, most importantly, a great many seeds pass through its digestive system virtually untouched, which has profound ecological implications. Most important is the role this plays in the regeneration of plants. The time these seeds spend in the heat of the elephant's stomach helps them to start germinating, and they are then deposited in a very fertile environment. A great deal has been said and written about the damage that elephants do to trees and not very much about how they replace them. One hundred and fifty years ago, when elephants could roam more or less as they pleased, they spent only limited time in any one area before moving on and because they had a virtually unlimited range it was some time before they returned; over time the seeds they dropped made up for the trees they damaged. Because they are being squeezed into ever-smaller areas by human population pressure this can't happen any more. We constantly talk about there being too many elephants and what to do about it, but in fact there are far fewer elephants than there used to be. The problem is not too many elephants but too many people. So the next time you plan to visit a game reserve, make sure you have a working knowledge of the language of the bush. It adds so much more to your pleasure!
With grateful thanks to Roddy Smith and 'The Witness'.

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