So, we were at last managing to find and collect the precious dung samples that would enable Niall McCann and his team at Cardiff University to carry out an exploratory research project to record the DNA of the current wild elephant population.
The adventures of dung girl
As dung collection coordinator, it was my job to ensure each team had a representative armed with the knowledge and tools required to collect samples. Then all I had to do was persuade them of the importance of this project.
Believe me, when you’ve been sitting on the back of an elephant all morning, or have spent the last few hours clinging on for dear life in the back of a jeep as it bounces over everything from sand to boulders, the last thing you feel like doing is getting out to prod about in a pile of elephant poo. More importantly, if given the choice between spending the next half an hour waiting in the jeep while two dappy scientists (me and Tessa) scout around the forest looking for more droppings or continuing down a road that might bring you upon a tiger or a herd of elephants round the next corner, which would you choose?
More than once I found myself defending the need to carry out the not-too-popular task of dung sampling. However, generally speaking the entire team was supportive and those who had agreed to carry the test tubes and undertake ‘dung duties’ were obliging. Throughout our visit we managed to collect no less than thirty-eight viable samples. Enough, I hope, to produce the evidence needed to support a funding bid for a longer project. Perhaps even a PhD.
“We could be supporting a three or four-year project for some young scientist,” I would explain on those occasions when it all seemed a bit much. “A few brief minutes for us now, could produce the data needed to persuade the right people to fund a much longer project. Some lucky sod might find themselves spending years out here, collecting samples that will allow them to continue to monitor and analyse the genetic heritage and movements of this wild elephant population. How cool is that?”
“Damn you dung girl,” would come the response. But any grumbles and teasing was always followed by the activity required to get the sample.
We soon became experts in spotting whether a pile of droppings were fresh enough to warrant our attention even without the help of the guides. Three days old or less and we’d use a stick to scrape of a few pieces from the surface of the droppings into one of our test tubes and mark that up with the a sample number, time of collection and GPS coordinates.
We could easily tell the difference between domestic and wild elephant droppings; the colour produced by their differing diets was very different. By the end of the trip, I could almost even tell the difference between elephant and rhino dung… almost – but not quite. Rhino dung seemed very similar to the droppings of young elephants to me.
You can tell a lot about what an elephant has been up to by looking at its dung. When we investigated the dung of the first lone bull we spotted on the Monday morning, it contained rice and lentils. This was a clear indication that the animal had been stealing food from nearby villages. Coupled with stories heard on the jungle grapevine, it seemed likely that this was the bull that was gaining a bad reputation with the locals and the soldiers working in the surrounding army camps.
Sadly, the success of the Bardia National Park’s conservation efforts means that the potential for conflict between the growing numbers of wildlife and those people living in the area is rising.
Tessa’s log, Earthdate 16 April 2012
Temperatures: 06:00 21°C light wind, some cloud, 14:00 34°C, 19:00 32°C
- Waterhole group – Barry, Mandy, Susannah, Sarah L, Jack, Cathy, Carolina
- Southern survey – Duncan, Siv, David DW, Tony, John E, Tessa, Sarah A
- Dam – JBS, Graham, David R, Villa,
- Fishing – Rajan, Peter, Angus
To the waterholes
That afternoon we split into different groups. A few expeditioners had particularly requested the opportunity to try fishing in the local river so, while the rest of us wet off in jeeps, JBS arranged for Rajan to take them out in an inflatable.
An afternoon fishing was something Rajan clearly relished and he persuaded his small team that midday was the best time to go out as the fish would be sluggish in the heat. So, while we were all still finishing off our lunch and keeping to the shade of camp, Peter Fraser and lead dentist, Angus, headed off in the direction of the river behind their very excited guide. The rest of us waited until 15:30 before departing under more reasonable conditions.
I had elected to go in the jeep that would be visiting the waterholes to the north of the camp. Tessa was heading south with the survey team; Duncan and Siv were using their skills to map new features, such as new roads, waterholes, army camps and watch towers, across the entire area.
Most or my afternoon was spent with my eyes peeled as the jeep drove us along roads I had never previously been down, or pottering around waterholes. Although we didn’t come across any wildlife larger than a deer, we did have some great fun making the skittering frogs skitter across the surface of the water. We also found many good animal prints including both elephant and tiger.
Barry and Mandy strolled around calmly. Both tall and elegant, they are a magnificent couple and have an amazing relationship. Having met in their forties, I believe, they have spent much of their lives based in Oman, Barry as a pilot and Mandy as an air hostess. But not on the large, grubby planes you or I are used to. While Barry has now retired, Mandy still works. She nips off around the world on a private jet, sometimes for weeks at a time, at her employer’s request. How my father would cope if my mother left him at the drop of a hat, for random lengths of time, I have no idea. He would almost certainly end up living on fried eggs and cold beans, straight from the tin. But Barry is clearly used to this situation and tends to amuse himself by taking up high risk sports such as wind surfing or snowboarding – as one does when one hits the ripe old age of 70 something!
Susanna too was with us, quietly recording the butterflies that were flitting about everywhere. She too is a middle-aged mother who has recently reclaimed enough freedom, now her children are old-enough, to grab the opportunity to live this type of experience. An academic specialising in ecotourism, Susanna had a reflective demeanour about her. Aside from carrying out the butterfly study for JBS, she also had her own project that required interviewing ten members of the team to assess the benefits of ‘travel with purpose’. She aimed to write up the results for a scientific journal.
I liked Susanna very much. While her personal confidence had taken a bashing recently, she still carried a real sparkle around with her. I truly enjoyed watching the healing power of Nepal working into her world through the days we were there. Like the rest of us, she became more relaxed with every day that passed.
Carolina was also part of the group. During a lull, when others were busy drawing and measuring animal prints, I took the opportunity to do a quick video interview her. I asked her if she had children.
“I have two children,“ she said. “One is thirteen, the other is fifteen.“
“And they’re happy for you to be out here,“ I asked, trying to relate her situation to my own.
“Yes,“ she said. “They miss me, but they’re happy.“
“And your husband?“ I asked.
“He’s dead,“ she said bluntly. “I’m a widow.“
I spluttered an apology and tried desperately to draw the conversation in a different direction. I felt like a complete heel. Luckily Carolina was completely forgiving and went on to talk to me about how much she loved her husband. An Irishman, he had moved to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, and eventually became British Consul. Carolina had taken over this vital role following her husband‘s death, in addition to continuing to run her own dental practice, the local school which her husband had helped set up, and a riding stables. All of this, in addition to her travels to places like Nepal and motherhood! I was beginning to see Carolina in a whole new light.
Other than our guide and driver, the last member of our group that afternoon was Cathy. An ex-phys. ed. teacher, she now runs a grooming service for a particular breed of dog. I’m kicking myself for not being able to remember which breed – it’s at times like these when I really miss Tessa. She’d remember a fact like that! Despite her new career, Cathy still has all the hallmarks of a school teacher. She is kind and helpful, but also holds an air of authority about her and has a ‘no nonsense‘ tone of voice that can cut through general chit-chat like a ruler slapping a desk.
Cathy was an excellent member of my ‘dung team‘ and collected many good samples. She was also the first to let me know that dung collection could not always take priority. Which is fair enough, I guess…
…as long as I had plenty of dung samples by the end of the day.
Lesson no. 18: its discovering the identification of the elephants who ‘flung the dung’ that counts