Collecting Poop to Save a National Park

The civil war in Mozambique ended more than 20 years ago, but many victims have yet to recover. During the 15-year war, large wildlife such as lions, elephants, and hippos in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park declined by more than 90 percent. "The rebel soldiers were poaching animals to eat them, but they were also hunting animals in order to trade their parts for weapons," explains wildlife ecologist and National Geographic Young Explorer Jen Guyton.

While most wildlife in Gorongosa has fought back to about ten percent of their prewar populations, one animal in particular has made a rather impressive comeback. Waterbuck numbers have reached almost 34,000 even though there were only 3,500 of them when the war started.

Guyton is studying waterbuck in Gorongosa to reveal the secrets behind their success and hoping to shed light on how park managers can help other species recover, too. Guyton says, "We're not really sure why waterbuck are so abundant now. They have this sort of greasy secretion that smells a little bit weird, and they supposedly taste really bad, so supposedly predators don't really like them."

While the dislike for waterbuck among animal predators remains just a theory, Guyton says there is evidence to support humans' distaste for the antelope. "It seems that local people, poachers especially, don't really like to eat waterbuck because of their musky smell."

By peeking into the everyday life of waterbuck, Guyton hopes to learn more about why the species is thriving. "We've teamed up with the National Geographic Crittercam team to put GPS collars on waterbuck. The cool thing about these collars is that they have little cameras attached to the necks. We're getting this incredible first-person footage, or first-antelope footage, I guess, from these animals, which is unprecedented." Guyton says.

Guyton's research is also heavily focused on the effect waterbuck and other herbivores are having on the vegetation: Are they hogging resources in such a way that the other struggling species can't compete? To understand what effect waterbuck are having on the ecosystem, Guyton needs to know what the animals are eating. And to do that, she goes straight to the source. Armed with nothing but latex gloves, Guyton retrieves poop samples directly from the waterbuck. "Sometimes we get unlucky and the animal will void its bowels before we capture it. That means that the back end is empty, and then we're out of luck."

Since the waterbuck is under sedation for this process, one team member holds the animal's head up by the horns to ensure the windpipe is unobstructed. If you think Guyton's position at the back of the waterbuck is unappealing, consider that while under sedation the waterbuck can still respond to stimuli, so as Guyton explains, "when you're standing over the head of a waterbuck and holding its horns you always have to be cautious, because they can toss their head and you can end up with a horn through your stomach."

These compromising positions raise the question: Why not just collect waterbuck poop from the ground after the animal has gone to the bathroom on its own? As it turns out, that process is actually much more labor intensive. Guyton wants to collect poop specifically from animals her team has collared, and "it's a lot more work to follow an animal for sometimes hours at a time, watching it closely, just waiting for it to poop. It's certainly a lot easier and more straightforward to just put a couple fingers in there and take it out," says Guyton. After attaching the Crittercam and taking samples, Guyton's team administers a reversal drug, and the waterbuck goes on its way.

While Guyton's job may not be for the faint of heart, the work is more than worth it as far as she's concerned: "Right now, managers in Gorongosa are working really hard to restore the ecosystem back to the way it was before the civil war. One of the bottlenecks in that process is that we don't yet have a lot of scientific data to tell us what to do, to guide the restoration. This project, among a lot of others that are happening in Gorongosa right now, will give managers the information that they need to make decisions about how to manage the park and its wildlife."

Learn more about Guyton's work on her website and watch her reveal the surprising eating habits of vultures and what that means for the ecosystem.

Click here to read more with Jen Guyton

(Guyton conducted her research as part of National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration grant 9459-14.)

Producer: Nora Rappaport
Editors: Laurence Alexander and Nora Rappaport
Series Producers: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker
Graphics: Chris Mattle and Babak Sha