Dung Ho! Dung Beetles in South Africa

Dung Ho! Dung Beetles in South Africa

On a recent trip to South Africa, the number one thing people were talking about was the upcoming World Cup Soccer Tournament about to be played there. Number two (pardon the pun) was dung. More specifically, elephant dung and the Dung Beetle.
Never would I have imagined spending so much time talking about and thinking about dung. When you think of Africa you think of the large magnificent creatures that inhabit the plains. After all who travels half way around the world to look at an insect? And yet, the little Dung Beetle is big news over there.
It seems that the Flightless Dung Beetles were very nearly wiped out throughout much of Africa, and today are found primarily in the Addo region of the Eastern Cape of South Africa where they are being reintroduced. Their habitat is constantly under threat from agricultural development and human encroachment as well as the falling numbers of the large animals it is dependent on. Climate, a limited breeding cycle and its own genetics (being flightless limits its range) also play a role in diminished numbers of the beetles. There is an ongoing movement (pardon again) to reintroduce them and ensure their continued survival. Why all this fuss about a lowly Dung Beetle? It’s a simple matter of Mother Nature and mathematics. Nature is fascinating and wise and everything has a purpose. The elephant’s job is to control the growth of forests. In one day a single elephant can consume 440 pounds of foliage to keep its adult figure and maintain a body weight of up to 10,000 pounds. This diet can be comprised of over 50 varieties of grasses, shrubs and trees -a grand buffet if you will. But elephants are unable to digest cellulose, the main material of plants, so more than 60% of what they eat is not absorbed. Of course, what goes in must come out. And it does, everywhere and in large amounts. Because elephant dung is also comprised of the seeds of grasses and fruits it consumes, it also helps with the propagation of their own food source- truly a circle of life! Dumbo may not seem so dumb to you any longer, eh?
Enter the Dung Beetle, whose sole job is to convert piles of dung into smaller dung balls. Slowly they roll the dung into spheres that they will then use as nests. After they transport their new nests into a quiet spot, the female beetles lay eggs in the dung balls. As the eggs mature and turn into larvae, the larvae then eat the dung balls. An actual “eating you out of house and home” if you will. Three to four months later, they eventually hatch into more Dung Beetles. More Dung Beetles, less dung everywhere. One Dung Beetle can remove more than its body weight in dung per day. That may not seem like a lot, but in comparison, if we humans were to consume an equivalent amount, we would have to eat over 300 quarter pounders, with cheese- every single day. Just imagine your cholesterol numbers then! After the larvae hatch, this ball, now rich in vegetation from the elephant’s dinner, is eventually buried, returning valuable nutrients to the soil.
Unfortunately for the Dung Beetles they themselves also are food for smaller carnivores such as meerkats, lizards and a whole host of birds. There is even a species of plant which grows on the root of Acacia trees that preys on Dung Beetles. When it rains, the Hydnora sends up enormous red flowers that have a smell similar to feces. How tricky. The flowers have a well at the center and slippery petals that prevent the beetle from crawling back out and the beetle eventually dies. The decomposing insects provide nutrients for the plant, which in turn also dies, leaving the underground portion of the plant to thrive and regenerate. Humans, as expected, are also predators- and not just by stepping on them. Chinese traditional medicine uses dried Dung Beetles to treat many maladies. Deforestation diminishes food for the elephants and the cycle spirals down to the Dung Beetle.
Fortunately, locals have thus far been successful in their reintroduction efforts. They still have a long way to go. For me, I remain amazed at the perfectly symbiotic relationship between an animal that weighs 5 tons and stands 11 feet tall at maturity and its partner in nature that measures 30mm in length and find myself rooting for both.  

One Banana, Two Banana-Costa Rica

19561_314344546580_2602820_n.jpgYou say banana they say banano.  Or platano.  In Costa Rica, bananas are served with everything. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Fried, mashed, boiled. You get the point. Good thing I love bananas. Prior to my trip to Costa Rica, I never gave any thought about the bananas I brought home from the store. Where they came from – how they got here. Most people don’t. One of the world’s major growers of bananas is Costa Rica. A stunningly beautiful little Central American country bordered both by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  Amongst the many plants found in Costa Rica are bananas. That’s right, bananas come from banana plants, not banana trees , but, I have to admit that visiting a banana plantation wasn’t on my “must see” list. As an “animal person” Tortuguero was on my list, as it is home to the two toed sloth, several types of monkeys and sea turtles and it was nesting season for the Green Turtle. I opted to take the journey from San Jose to Tortuguero for a chance at a glimpse of an expectant Green Turtle dig a nest with her giant flippers, lay and bury her eggs before heading back to sea without so much as a backwards glance. It’s a long and bumpy ride from San Jose to the launch points for the boats to Tortuguero and the buses usually stop to take a break along the way. Their stop of choice is at a banana processing site, billed as a sightseeing opportunity. It’s really also an opportunity to promote their number 2 product and it was educational as well as entertaining. The first thing I learned is that there are no Banana trees. That was a big surprise to me. They may be called banana trees but they actually are banana plants with a surprisingly short lifecycle. After each cycle of producing fruit, the banana plant dies and new rootstocks are produced. The new rootstocks then grow a brand new banana plant.

The second thing I learned is that if you have an amazingly large and ugly bug on a stick, you can actually earn a living by posing for photos with the less timid tourists.

I was surprised at the amount of human interaction involved in getting the bananas to the processing plant. The bananas are still taken from the plants by humans without mechanical aid. The bunches of bananas are cut by hand.  Even the process of getting the bananas from the field to the processing plant is quite simple and practical. Why did the bananas cross the road? As it worked out, the bananas are grown on one side of the primary road while the processing building sits on the other side.  A team of workers cuts the green bananas from the plant and encases them in blue plastic bags to deter ripening. Each blue sack is fastened to a rope and pulley system similar to a clothes line. When the line is fully loaded, the flashing lights signal road traffic to stop, the gate arm comes down, think railroad crossings, and as a worker pulls on the rope the bananas begin to bounce their way across to the processing plant like a platoon of banana soldiers. Once they have crossed, the lights darken, the arm is raised and traffic resumes.  At the processing plant, we watched, actually fascinated, as the workers sectioned off the larger bunch of bananas into smaller groups each containing 5 bananas The bananas were sorted, washed , stickered and bagged, and then packed for shipping. Simple but efficient and keeps quite a few people employed.

Chances are you packed a banana today for a midday snack or to go with your lunch. Maybe you had a banana in your morning cereal. In case you were curious, tourism is currently their number 1 product and well worth the visit. You may not be able to bring bananas home with you but you can bring home another famous export, Costa Rican coffee to go with that breakfast.

About that man with the large and ugly bug on a stick, I hear he’s still there and doing quite well.

Hercules beetle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercules_beetle


Double Life

I lead a double life. Many people know me as a local Travel Agent in Hopewell Junction specializing in vacations, honeymoons and destination weddings. I started in the travel business in the early eighties and opened Embassy Travel in 1985. But, others know me for my work in animal rescue. I’ve used my experience in special events to create several popular large scale events for fellow animal lovers and their pets. I’ve been privileged to serve on the Board of Directors of the Dutchess County SPCA, the largest animal rescue group in the county, currently in the middle of a Capital Campaign to build the most progressive animal adoption facility in the area. I also help several smaller scale local organizations. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, those two roles collide.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are known for their absolutely gorgeous beaches, their upscale condos and their gourmet dining scene. I had an opportunity to visit Provodenciales, Provo for short. When I found out they had a local animal shelter I put it on my itinerary of places to visit during my island tour. The Turks and Caicos Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, T.C.S.P.C.A. for short, is trying to do what every other animal rescue group tries to do: find homes for homeless animals, stem the tide of overpopulation and raise funds to accomplish the first two goals. The local strays are called “Potcakes”. The name originated when islanders would cook rice and found that the rice at the bottom of their cooking pans was undesirable. When they turned these leftovers out into their yards, the shapes resembled cakes. They soon found that the strays would gratefully eat the discarded rice, which earned them the moniker of “Potcakes”. The T.C.S.P.C.A. has one distinction that works to their advantage: beautiful beaches. That plus the generosity of local villa and condo owners who occasionally donate their accommodations to visiting Veterinarians and their families in exchange for spay/neuter services helps to turn former strays who can reproduce into potential pets that can’t. Not a bad deal.

Mahatma Ghandi was quoted as saying “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Perhaps that’s true, but by which side do you judge the country? Puerto Rico is easy to reach, has a dynamic nightlife and restaurant scene, a magnificent rain forest and a population that is passionate about food. Puerto Rico has one side that promotes cock fighting and has an area notoriously known as Dead Dog Beach. The strays in Puerto Rico are called “Satos” and many Satos are abandoned to a certain fate in this area without food or shelter. Unfortunately, they are also subjected to inhumane beatings and torture at the hands of local hoodlums. As often happens, the best of people rises up to combat the worst and the Sato Project of Puerto Rico was born. The organization rescues as many dogs as their resources allow. The lucky dogs are often sent stateside to find loving homes. Sally Jesse Raphael was one of their most prominent supporters. You can find info at http://www.thesatoproject.org.

I have to admit that one of the biggest surprises I have had was on a trip to Hong Kong. It’s an amazing, colorful, vibrant and crowded city with many sights to see. Sort of a cultural coming together of China, the United Kingdom and a little bit of America thrown in for flavor. While travelling through the narrow streets and back alleys I saw cats everywhere with the markings that are typical of Abyssinian cats. According to Wikipedia, Abyssinians are described as “a colorful cat with a distinctly ticked coat. Its distinctive ticked look comes from the combination of colors on each hair shaft. The body is often described as being muscular.” I have always admired and wanted an Abyssinian. However, without even addressing the costs of purchasing an expensive cat, I know that if I have room in my home for another animal, I would want to give a home to a stray. And, I’ll be darned, in Hong Kong,  Abyssinians are strays!  Touring a local animal shelter wouldn’t be a the top of most visitors sightseeing list but when I learned that Hong Kong had a central animal shelter, I was curious. I’m not sure what I expected to find but it sure wasn’t what I found. The Hong Kong animal shelter was clean and modern and basically the type of animal shelter that most animal organizations now aspire to be. That’s what I like most about travel. Sometimes it takes your assumptions and pre conceptions and turns them in a way that forces you to reevaluate what you believe to be true. Travel is about being open to that truth and realizing that there is still so much to  learn.