An excerpt from my book:
One fine Delta morning, walking along behind Morula, I stumble over a pile of dried dung. An elephant defecates fifteen to seventeen times per day, up to 250 pounds of droppings. If Morula used the same spot each time, as pigs do for their privies, the resultant tally of her daily dump would be taller and heavier than I am. Luckily, elephants leave their leavings wherever they happen to be. Luckily, this pile of dung wasn’t a fresh one. But the one next to it is.
I kneel down and take a closer look at Morula’s fragrant pile of feces. Since she’s a vegetarian, it smells more of compost than rot. Crosshatched with undigested twigs, this wet pile contains quite a few seeds. Thirty species of African trees rely on an elephant’s intestine. Passing untouched through the gut, their seeds emerge in the feces, instantly fertilized.
I bend closer. Tiny grooves in the sand mark where dung beetles have already rolled off balls of dung. Even tinier footprints dot each groove. With its hind legs, a dung beetle can propel a ball of dung 1,041 times its own body weight – equivalent to me, lying on my back, trying to push around Morula with my feet.
One study found 22,000 dung beetles on a single elephant plop. Dung beetles enrich the soil, prevent the spread of parasites and disease, and provide food for their young, night and day, day and night – finding their way around at night by polarized moonlight.
A dung beetle barrel rolls past my ear and lands on top of Morula’s output. Tightly rolled bits of it are already making off into the grass, propelled by industrious hind legs. As the male rolls his ball of dung, a female rides on top. She will lay her egg on it once the ball is buried. In less than an hour, most of this pile will be gone, entombed in tiny birthing chambers, each ball of dung containing a few seeds and a single egg. When the beetle larva hatches from the egg, it has all of the food and water it will need until it is able to function on its own.
There are 1800 species of dung beetles in southern Africa – 1800 tribes of sanitary engineers cleaning things up. Worldwide, the dung beetle family includes 5,000 species. In the United States there are 90 species. Ranchers love them – an established population of dung beetles can clear out a cow pasture in thirty-six hours. Australians import African dung beetles to augment their native population and are experimenting with them in big cities to rid sidewalks and streets of dog droppings. In East Africa, dung beetles work their way through eighty percent of the leavings left behind by the mass migrations on the Serengeti. Without dung beetles all of Africa would be covered with, well, you know.
I know what will happen next.
I’ve already leaned too far forward on my right foot, anticipating the left will follow. But the clog on that foot is mired in the Okavango muck, cemented in place, my balance irreversibly committed in the wrong direction.
What happens next is a slow-motion twist to my right, as I go down in thigh-high brown water and ooze, down into decayed leaf litter, down into a mat of decomposed anaerobic slime.
My right arm drops to cushion my fall and my left arm shoots up, holding my brand-new camera above my head – the camera purchased just for this trip to Africa.
I create primary and secondary waves as my hip and shoulder enter a backwater swamp of the Okavango. The waves push against a small clump of reeds. Elephant dung floats by. A brackish, decayed scent rises.
The sun hasn’t moved more than a tick in the blue Botswana sky.
I come to rest against the reeds – all of my right side invisibly encased in muck. But my left arm is dry, above the water, my camera clutched at the end of it like a trophy.
Sandi is already splashing in my direction. She tugs on my dry arm.
“Let me help you up,” she offers.
“No, just take the camera.”
She places its strap around her neck.
I roll against the reeds and use both hands to push myself upright. I reach down, and blindly find my shoe. I need both hands to pry it out of the muck.
“I think I’m going to have to go barefoot,” and flinch at a secondary thought. “I hope there aren’t any lead wood thorns.” Two-inches long, strong as steel, straight as nails – they’d go right through the bottom of my feet.
“I’ll go first,” Sandi says. Her sandals aren’t sticking in the ooze.
Oddly enough, the muck at the bottom of the swamp is soft as a pillow to my bare feet. It wraps around my ankles and squishes up between my toes. I place each foot carefully, not committing my weight until it’s safe to do so.
It takes forever to cross. Doug and the elephants patiently wait for us on the opposite side.
When we reach the far bank I put my clogs back on. Sandi hands me my camera.
“We’ll put your clothes in the washing machine tonight.”
“We brought one into camp last year.”
“Really? How’d you do that?”
“On the back of the hay truck.”
I look down at my pants and shirt, both mottled by muck.
A lot has changed in five years.