October 12th, 2012

Jessica and I collect poop.  Before you become worried that our hobbies have become a bit untoward since setting up camp in the bush, let me assure you that it’s all for science.  See, poop, in addition to smelling bad, is full of all sorts of fun things that you’ve probably never thought about.  Some of those things are gross.  Others, however, tell us info about the baboons that it’s hard to get other ways.  Specifically, Jessica collects poop to look for reproductive hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc.) and I collect it to find stress hormones and, hopefully, DNA so we can work out some paternities.  In practice, though, this all means that we run around the forest following baboons hither and thither, waiting for them to take a dump.  And baboons can be such a tease about this.


The most common phenomenon we see is the “turtle”.  This is a turtle:


A turtle pokes its head out and we think, “Oh, goody!  Poop!”  Only sometimes these turtles are teasers.  Sometimes they’re just checking the weather or something and they will cling to the walls of whence they came FOR HOURS.   Some turtles become “hangers”, most profoundly illustrated by Wokora the other day:


This fellow, despite being ten times more precarious than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, hung onto Wokora for a good twenty minutes.  Braving life and limb, I climbed up some precarious branches to position myself underneath her to catch the sucker when it fell, only to have her climb to an even more inaccessible spot (luckily, when the poo finally gave up the ghost, Hamimu, my intrepid young assistant, managed to secure a passable amount of it through sheer athleticism).


In addition to risking our necks for the sake of shit, we must also do battle with all manner of insects—and occasionally baboons—to claim our prize.  For many months it was just flies.  Then, recently, the dung beetles have started showing up in force.  First, they are problematic if you can’t get to the sample quick enough (i.e. the baboon drops it and then continues to sit over it like a mother hen tending her egg).  By the time the sample becomes available several of the beetles have already rolled pieces up in little balls and are wheeling them away.  But even if you get to the poo when it’s still warm, the beetles swing in like large hovercraft and mount the feces like some great Olympus and then proceed to cling to it like drowned sailors to a piece of plywood.  As soon as we pull one off—and trust me, this is not easy; they have leg muscles like Swarzenegger in his 20s—there are three more that have climbed aboard and suddenly getting a little swizzle stick of poo becomes a titanic battle of wills.

Industrious little dung beetles

The final interesting part about collecting poop is that it promotes a hyper-awareness to all things fecal.  Even off-duty, we find ourselves honing in on useless clumps of doo-doo, wondering at their origin, wishing to characterize and categorize them, secretly assessing their freshness.  And thus, everywhere I go, I see poop.  Baboon poop, chimp poo, wild pig poop.  I notice swarms of flies and dung beetles, telltale signs that a dump spot is near, and find myself craning my neck to see what all the fuss is about.  If any baboon poops, even one we don’t care about, Hamimu announces, “Sampo!” (Swahili for “sample”) and we all swing our heads to look, because maybe, just maybe, some tricky baboon that normally drags us through the thickets and thorns for hours is giving a freebie and we, above all else, want to be first in line.