It is everywhere in any place even remotely, partially, tiptoeingly touched by the elephant species. As an important part of the environmental cycles of Africa, the steaming pile of manure is an important way that these giant creatures contribute to their surroundings. This is a nice way of saying that elephant dung is the ultimate African compost, churning tons of foliage mass into ground up hay every day. In fact, most elephants produce over 100 pounds (over 50 kg) of dung per day! But who knew it was important to humans, too?
I was sitting in the car in Western Zimbabwe one day waiting for my family to come back from a bathroom break. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Not a human in sight for miles. Then a car pulled up next to us.
It was strange, I first thought, that this car should park so close to us when there were, oh, 500 kilometers of space between us and the nearest parking space. But the really strange thing turned out not to be the choice of parking, but rather why the car had parked.
A woman got out of the car with a plastic grocery bag. She walked over to a fresh pile of elephant dung, and with her bare hands, she picked up as much dung as what would fit in the bag. With no sheepishness at picking up a giant pile of feces, she set the bag in the trunk, returned to the car, and proceeded to drive away.
My mind was blown. Seriously? Had I just seen that? Absolutely I had. I had been the weird girl scrambling in the back seat, fumbling to get my camera to show my missing family what I had just witnessed...
When I asked a Ndebele wildlife scout later on that night outside of Hwange National Park about my strange encounter, he had nodded his head. "Yes," he said. "Elephant dung is a very useful thing. It can be dried and burnt at night as a way of repelling bugs, or a lot of people use it ground up herbally for stomach ailments." He went on to explain that the smoke from burning ellie dung is believed to give people peaceful sleep and good dreams.
We may be living in the 21st Century, but how strangely awesome that there are still people out there that know some of the amazing uses for crazy pieces of nature. Look up elephant dung online and you will find it is also a useful paper-producer, coffee filter, and garden fertilizer.
And if nothing else, it makes one wicked snowball.