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Elephants are endlessly fascinating but in Etosha National Park this winter, we were privileged to see behaviour so rare that not even elephant scientists have often witnessed it in the wild.

The rains had been really poor, so there wasn’t a drop of water in the famous Etosha Pan, which meant no water birds, waders, and most disappointingly no flamboyance of flamingos. However it also meant the waterholes – springs, artesian wells or boreholes (it didn’t matter) – were hives of activity. At Rietfontein waterhole two bull elephants were having a head-butting competition. One was dark grey, wet from a full-immersion swim. The other was white-grey from the Etosha dust and mud, so it was an interesting picture of contrasts.


On another day, this time at Kalkheuwel waterhole there was a breeding herd of about 50 elephants, including lots of little ones and three really tiny calves, still hairy and pink behind the ears. We watched them for a long time, the littles tripping over the rocks, walking under mom’s belly to get into the shade, attempting a handstand, nose and front legs into the ground, fat bum in the air. The fact that they don’t get trampled in that forest of massive legs is testimony to the adult elephants’ care of the young. A car came in too close and too loudly, and immediately older ellies huddled protectively around the little ones, pushing them to the centre of the scrum, keeping them from harm. When some of the ellies finished drinking, they stood waiting patiently for the rest who were still snorkelling up water by the trunkful.

elephant-baby elephant

That’s when we saw something we’d never seen before, in more than 20 years of watching elephants throughout southern Africa.

One of the waiting elephants reached out to pick up a piece of ellie dung in its trunk. Slowly but deliberately, it placed the dung ball in its mouth and reached down for another. Before long, a little one made like a copy cat and ate a few pieces of its own.


Scientists call this behaviour coprophagy and it’s fairly common in hares and rabbits, rats and mice. Dogs and pigs also do it from time to time. According to elephant boffin Dr Keith Leggett it’s not common in elephants and rarely recorded, “I can’t work out whether this is because most observers don’t like the behaviour and so ignore it, or it is truly rare” he says. He recorded it a few times in the arid zones of Namibia, when it coincided with the first leaf flush of a particular commiphora species. At such times, he reckons, it’s probably to get hold of a gut bacteria that might help to digest plant material. Since we saw this behaviour early in the dry season, it’s nothing to do with the commiphora plant. In this case, he says, it’s probably due to the harsh environmental times, with little vegetation available. The elephants need a little more bulk in their diet and eating dung makes up for it. Remember that elephants only digest about 20% of the vegetation they eat, so there’s 80% more nutrition available in their dung.

“Without getting too graphic about it (and it’s really not my favourite subject),” says Leggett, “if elephants have runny, liquid bowel movement then it’s probably a gut bacteria question; if the dung is dried out or solid, then it’s a food bulk question.” Of course the calves are just mimicking the adults.

So now you know: elephants, like rats and rabbits, will sometimes eat their own poo. It’s rare, but it happens. Have you ever witnessed this in the wild? Share your experience in the comments below.


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Roxanne Reid

Roxanne Reid is a freelance writer and editor. She has authored two travel books, Travels in the Kalahari and A Walk in the Park, and her articles have appeared in magazines like Getaway, Wild and Country Life. She also has her own blog, which focuses on African travel, people, wildlife, heritage and small country villages. She's happiest in the middle of nowhere, meeting the locals, trying something new, or simply watching the grass grow. No words or photographs may be used without permission from