Student - April 22, 2016

Combing elephant droppings for seeds

Who? Maayke Klaver, Master’s student of Biology
What? Research on the role of elephants in the distribution of the bael fruit
Where? Bardia National Park, Nepal

‘The bael fruit (or Bengal quince) is a strange plant. The seeds are inside the fruit, but its skin is so hard that there doesn’t seem to be a single animal that can eat it. So it is a mystery how the plant propagates itself. We had a hunch that elephants play a key role. And during a ride on a tame elephant in Nepal we saw that it did indeed pick up and eat a quince. An important question in my research was whether the seeds could still germinate in the elephant droppings. To find that out I had to collect a lot of bags of elephant poo.

27-HEW Maayke Klaver NG Neushoorn.jpg

In the many national parks in Nepal there are other unusual animals apart from elephants. One unforgettable moment was a hair-raising encounter with a rhinoceros. Because of the long grass we only saw it at the last minute. The rhino was already looking at us threateningly. Luckily our guide knew what to do. He banged hard on the ground with a stick several times and the rhino ran away. In spite of the danger I couldn’t resist taking a photo, which was even used by National Geographic for an article!

Local people helped me a lot with my research. They are very nice but Nepalese society is very hierarchical. They clearly saw themselves as lower in rank than me. They wanted to do everything for me, which took a lot of getting used to. After a while I got to know people better, which removed this barrier.

27-HEW Maayke Klaver Mensen.jpg

I was still in Nepal when the major earthquake hit. Luckily I was a long way from the epicentre. The university contacted me weekly after the quake, but the disaster didn’t actually have much impact on my research. That was different for the local people who helped me, of course. They were very scared because they had family in the regions which were hard hit. The damage from the earthquake was very obvious. In the mountains I saw a lot of landslides and there were hardly any tourists around.’