Sarah is a Conservation Ecologist specialising in species research and conservation, with experience on a variety of animals from butterflies, to land crabs, to cetaceans, rhinoceros and saola. She has worked in the UK, the Seychelles, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Sarah led the recent survey of the Javan rhinoceros population in Vietnam using dung detection dogs and genetic analysis of rhino dung, which confirmed that the population is extinct – the last individual was tragically found dead shortly after the survey in April 2010. Sarah has worked in SE Asia since 2008 and joined the FFI Cambodia programme in January 2012 as Flagship Species Officer, providing managerial and technical oversight to the Asian elephant, Siamese crocodile and marine turtle conservation projects in Cambodia.
People could be forgiven for thinking I have a fascination with dung. Dung, scat, faeces or droppings, whatever you want to call it, is sometimes the closest we can hope to get to our rare focal species in Southeast Asia, where wildlife is often elusive and wary of humans as a consequence of hunting and overexploitation.
In fact, dung can tell us many invaluable things:
It can tell us whether a species is present in an area
Hog deer pellets - don't poo-poo the value of what we can learn from them. Credit: Sarah Brook/FFI
The unique dung and footprints of hog deer found on our surveys in 2013, told us that this globally Endangered animal was still clinging to survival in Cambodia.
It can tell us about the taxonomic status of the animal
Taking samples from a hog deer fawn. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
It is unclear whether the Indochinese hog deer warrants subspecies or species status, which has important implications for its conservation. Cambodia holds the only known remaining wild populations of this subspecies/species where it is on the brink of extinction. Dung and skin samples have been sent to a lab for further and immediate analysis.
It can tell us more about a species’ diet
Studies of the contents of crocodile dung by the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme have shown that the Siamese crocodile feeds on a wide variety of prey, including snakes, frogs, birds, inverterbrates and small mammals. We will be studying the dung of the crocodiles we have released, to understand how well they have adapted back to life in the wild.
Sam Han and wardens taking crocodile dung samples. Credit: Sarah Brook/FFI
It can give us an estimate of how many individuals there are…
DNA testing was done on elephant dung collected in the Cardamom Mountains to ascertain population. Credit: Matt Maltby/FFI
Over the last 10 years we have been counting, measuring and classifying crocodile dung to provide us with an index of population number and an understanding of population structure (how many adults/juveniles/sub-adults in a population). We also obtained the first ever estimate of Asian elephant numbers in the Cardamom Mountains via a dung-DNA survey in 2008.
…and it can help us to monitor populations over time
Not a job for the faint hearted, dung samples can tell us so much about a species. Credit: Matt Maltby/FFI
We have recently come back from Veal Veaeng Marsh where we collected 37 crocodile dung samples, to send for genotyping. Genotyping determines differences in the genetic make-up of individuals and can therefore tell us more accurately than other methods how many individuals of a species occur in a particular area. We also plan to set up a dung-DNA based monitoring system for elephants in the Cardamom Mountains in the next couple of years because we need to better understand how these populations are faring over time.
It can also tell us how healthy an individual is
Dung can be analysed to look at levels of stress hormones to determine whether stress may be having a detrimental impact on wild animal populations. Biologists also study the levels of reproductive hormones in the dung of many species, like rhinos, to determine the right time for mating, investigate reproductive cycles and thereby enhance conservation breeding programmes.
All of this information gleaned from dung helps us to better understand our target species and populations, and enable us to conserve them more effectively. So for now, there is no getting away from dung, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.