By Hunter Doughty
A look at elephant dung and how humans use it.
I began writing this blog entry thinking I would be able to find at least a few interesting examples of elephant dung use to talk about, but to my amazement I was way off. There is not a select few examples, but tons of examples! Apparently, elephant dung is a hot commodity at the moment (no pun intended). In my search I came across elephant dung coffee, paper, medicine, beer, artwork, mosquito repellent, souvenirs, fuel, and shoes. And I am sure there is plenty more where that came from.
But to answer how elephant dung is so versatile, we must first learn a bit about the biology. The average Asian elephant eats about 150kg of food per day. Surprisingly though, an elephant only digests 40-50% of this. Which means that all of that excrement is extremely nutrient rich. It is full of intact plant material and seeds. Interestingly, many of these seeds have evolved to only germinate after being passed through an elephant (sort of like how some plant species have evolved to only germinate after a fire). Additionally, elephant dung does not smell. This is likely related to it being so poorly digested. Most smelly excrements contain high amounts of volatile chemicals, such as sulfur compounds, that are produced as a byproduct of bacterial metabolism1. In elephant dung however, lesser amounts of organic matter is being broken down, so there are fewer available compounds for bacteria. Which means less bacterial metabolism is occurring, and hence, less smelly byproducts.
Related to those intact fibers, let’s first look at elephant dung paper. Dung paper is made through the same general process as tree bark paper, except that the wash and boil phase seems to hold a bit more significance. To read the full breakdown of the steps to make such paper check out the Thai Elephant Conservation Center’s2 website from Chiang Mai, Thailand. Dung paper seems to be a popular source of revenue in zoos and conservation centers worldwide where elephant products are used to generate awareness for elephant conservation needs. Additionally, elephant dung paper has become a part of the recent eco-friendly movement wanting to promote treeless paper. Companies targeting an international market, such as Poopoopaper3, sell various paper products made from the excrement of a range of species like elephants, cows, and horses.
Another eco-friendly use for elephant dung is as a fuel source. In Africa, the need for heat source fuels is staggering. So many people need fire for cooking and warmth every day, that deforestation for firewood has had a significant impact on the landscape of the continent4. It is no surprise then that proponents of reforestation practices have turned to elephant dung as a viable alternative. Dried elephant dung can be used directly as a firewood substitute; same as how dried cow patties can be used5. And being such a dense compaction of plant material, these ‘bricks’ likely burn much longer than their equivalent size in fresh grasses.
Additionally, scientists in recent years have figured out how to use elephant dung as a source of natural gas. All of that undigested plant material makes for a high caloric value substance that is then ‘digested’ in a contained setting where the methane that is produced during bacterial breakdown can be harvested for use in cooking, heating, and powering things like water heaters6. This technology is being employed in Africa, Asia7, and interestingly, western zoos. Yes, some zoos like the Rosamond Gifford Zoo8 in Syracuse, NY, USA, have turned to the mass amounts of feces they incur as a sustainable way to power their facilities. And the Munich Zoo in particular has implemented a fairly successful system of using ‘poo power’9 and solar energy to keep their lights on.
Separate from its use as a bio-fuel, elephant dung has now joined the ranks of species like the civet in creating what some humans would call an equally important daily energy source, coffee. Right here in the Golden Triangle the elephants we work with are also being employed by the company Black Ivory Coffee10 to produce, or should I say excrete, bitter-free coffee. According to the owner, an elephants’ gentle digestive track helps to lightly break down the coffee bean, which can then be harvested and provide for a cup of Joe that is not only “very smooth”, but contains “flavours you wouldn't get from other coffees,"11 (I have a few guesses as to why…). Priced at $520 per pound, Black Ivory Coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. And although the company itself is not purely for the benefit of captive elephant management, they do at least donate 8% of sales back to the elephants here in the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. So, caffeinate on!
To take this coffee fad even further though, a Japanese brewery has begun using these coffee beans in their latest stout. Labeled Un, Kono Kuro, the Sankt Gallen brewery12 believes that their combination of fine brewing and delicately digested coffee will provide you with a experience as heightened as this Japanese reviewer’s was: “The combination of bitter and sweet stayed fresh and lingered in my head. It was a familiar aroma that accompanied me through the entire beer.” If you are feeling so inclined, you can try the stout for yourself by either purchasing it online, or ordering it on tap in their shop in Tokyo.
Lastly, the elephant dung use that surprised me the most was in the form of art. Chris Ofili is an English Turner Prize-winning painter who gained particular fame and notoriety by incorporating elephant dung into his artwork. Starting in 1993 when he first travelled to Africa, Ofili has been using clumps or smears of dung in his multi-media pieces to add a controversial and arguably animalistic effect13. And in response to Ofili’s work, the UK artist and designer Insa, created a pair of ten-inch high heels, also made from elephant dung, that were showcased in a 2010 exhibition highlighting Ofili’s work14. Entitling the shoes ‘Anything Goes When it Comes to Shoes’, Insa wanted to both experiment with the material and “[teach] himself how to work with a medium that at first may seem inappropriate.” Well Insa, I can say from personal experience that having elephant dung on your shoes is actually quite appropriate, at least when you are an elephant researcher.
In conclusion, from bio-fuel, to stilettos, to everything in-between, it seems elephant dung is a resource that humans the world over have come to utilize. And given the challenges that both wild and captive elephants are facing, I think that no matter how bizarre the use is, if it provides humans with another reason to conserve elephants, or just calls attention to elephants as a species, then it is a good use to me.