By Malvika Colvin and Aniruddha Dhamorikar
Elephants are keystone species, popularly known as nature’s gardeners. These ecosystem engineers help to shape and structure their habitats. Found wandering through dense forests and lush grasslands, elephants, migrate in search of food and water from one area to another. In the process of eating and, quite naturally, excreting as they stroll, they turn a lot of biomass into manure!
In one of their migrations, some elephants ventured into Chhattisgarh from Jharkhand and Odisha between the 1980s and 1990s. Over one-hundred-and-fifty years later, the elephants called the forests of Chhattisgarh their home. A tiny, yet significant population of around 250 elephants remained in the region, while some migrate across the three states.
WWF India conducted a camera trapping exercise in the Guru Ghasidas National Park in January 2021. The primary purpose of the camera trapping activity is to study wildlife populations – especially tigers and leopards, and the prey species. The Guru Ghasidas National Park, originally a part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is situated in the Koriya district of Chhattisgarh. Together with the Sanjay Tiger Reserve, it forms a large contiguous forest with Badalkhol-Tamor Pingla Elephant Reserve to the eastand is a favourite haunt of the wild elephants of Chhattisgarh.
We found many mammals that call this national park home – which are hard to sight directly or in the day – including the rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, leopard, and the mighty tiger. We were notified of wild elephant population of around 20-30 individuals by the Forest Department, restricted to the Rehand and Ramgarh ranges at the time of camera trapping. As is expected of young elephants – wild or tamed – they can break our cameras if they were irked by one!
An elephant decided to ‘go’ right in front of our camera station. An elephant’s diet is rich in fiber and starch; less than 50% of the food gets wholly digested.
In Ramgarh, a herd of wild elephants was photo-captured, frolicking about in front of one of the camera stations. Elephants do not frequent this range, their preferred areas being the hilly and densely forested areas of Rehand. An individual was photo-captured defecating on February 12th – nothing unusual, camera traps capture interesting and rarer animal behaviours. We caught a peculiar behavior among the resident animals for 20 days on that pile of dung on observing the pictures.
A sloth bear is the first to sniff around the elephant pile of dung.
The next night, a sloth bear came tumbling and only briefly sniffed at the dung. On the fourth day we saw an Indian fox who quickly turned away the moment the camera flashed. Few more days later, a sloth bear was found fumbling through the dung, probably trying to find something in it.
The sloth bear revisits the pile of dung – this time making sure to leave no bolus unturned.
On the eleventh day, came a honey badger who marauded through the dung – also looking for something. The next day, the fox came back again to take a gander about the dung. And on the twentieth day, a jungle cat passed from between the now dried-up pile of dung.
A honey badger (ratel) scrapes through the dung, looking for morsels in the form of insects.
Excepting the jungle cat, four animals interacted somehow with that pile of dung, which we found a bit too curious. While it is challenging to comment only from camera trap pictures, we turned to the elephant experts from WWF India for their opinions on what these animals were up to and why they were attracted to elephant dung.
An Indian fox gives a side glance (what we think is a stink eye) to the pile.
In areas frequented by wild and domestic elephants, elephant dung is just that – poop. Elephants spend up to 16-18 hours a day eating. They do not chew, cud or ruminate like other herbivores, only partially digesting what they eat in a day. Hence, their dung consists of seeds and vegetation that pass through their gut mostly in an undigested mix. Such ‘poop’ is considered rich nutrients. Countless flies for the nutrition first visit it, then as the odour wafts far and wide, dung beetles and other scatophagous (poop-eating) insects home in. While dung beetles take away rolled balls of dung, most scatophagous insects lay eggs, and the larvae directly feed on the leafy mulch. Since it is essentially starch and cellulose, termites, too, start degrading the dung. Birds mostly scatter dung piles to look for these insects and their larvae.
A jungle cat making its way through the now-scattered pile, unfazed but seemingly displeased by the enormity of the elephant poop.
Of all the animals that sniffed about, two are known to be opportunists – the fox and the badger, along with the sloth bear, an omnivore. They likely stopped byto find some insect morsels, which is the only plausible explanation.
“It is possible that elephants are not frequent in the area, which is why other local wild animals found the scent curious.,” Said Soumen Dey, Team Leader for the Central India Landscape.
“Elephants being hind-gut fermenters, have poor digestive ability and their dung consists of a large amount of semi/undigested matter, which may attract other animals.” Mentions David Smith, Project Officer, Baramhaputra Landscape in Assam. In addition, some animals roll in the dung to mask their scents, and we think they have caught the honey badger doing so.
We've observed many animals curious about camera traps in other locations – not for the intermittent flashes of light, but for the scent they carry. Langurs, sambar, wild pigs, jackals, as well as sloth bears and tigers, have been observed sniffing camera traps for their otherworldly – that is beyond their forest – scents that the camera trap owners inadvertently left behind.
The elephants – nature’s engineers and gardeners of India’s forests and grasslands.
When elephants wander, their dung not only adds fertilizers to the ground but also disperses seeds. When the dung beetles roll up the dung, some seeds pass through the second-level of seed dispersal, germinating in areas not directly accessible.
Elephants aid in the geographic expansion of several trees, which has a positive domino effect on an ecosystem. They help to distribute plant communities, and in making forests regenerate naturally – all credited to their eating habits!
Humans have studied elephant poop pretty thoroughly – going all the way to making paper out of the natural mulch. So long as we figure out the curious case we observed in the Guru Ghasidas National Park, we are equally satisfied knowing that other animals, too, are curious about elephant poop!