In the bush, the most important signs of wildlife are the simplest, but they are often overlooked. Most people would turn their noses up at rhino dung, instead preferring to look at other sightings or tracks. Yet interestingly enough, white rhino dung tells a story that is of utmost importance to not only the rhino but also conservationists.
White rhinos defecate in areas called “middens”. These middens are essential for both visual and olfactory (by scent) communication between rhinos. Rhino bulls, usually over the age of 12, will obtain territory and mark these with up to 40 middens. To express dominance to other rhino, he will proceed to defecate in the middle of the midden then kick backwards, breaking up the dung to spread his scent. He will also urinate and scrape forward with all four feet.
All these actions are to ensure his scent is in the midden and on his feet, and can, therefore, be tracked across his territory. This dominant behaviour shows that he owns this midden and territory.
However, a midden will have many guests and the most important being females. Female rhino can use the midden and will defecate on the outside of the midden around the bull’s dung. This behaviour is extremely important because the bull can track the females by their dung, and just from the smell, he will be able to tell who they are, when they came by, and if they are in oestrus.
Another type of guest is a submissive young male rhino. Rhinos generally do not obtain territory until they are at least 12 years old. Prior to that age, most dominant bulls will allow subordinates to come into their territory for resources such as water. This privilege is referred to as the corridor system. The submissive guests will defecate on the outskirts of the midden, and they never break up their faeces out of respect for the dominant bull.
The third type of guest would be a black rhino. Black rhinos are permitted on white rhino territory because they are not direct competitors for food or mates and one would often find black rhino dung in a white rhino midden.
The last type of guest you may find in a white rhino midden is a competing dominant male. A bull that wants to challenge another bull for territory, will defecate directly on top of his faeces and then proceed to break it up to symbolize his dominance over the resident dominant male. This will cause a fight for the territory to ensue, which is often fatal – 50% of male rhinos that die naturally, do so as a result of fighting.
Not only are middens important to rhinos, but they’re also important for the entire ecosystem. Middens can turn into watering holes after heavy storms, and as animals of increasing size start rolling around in the mud they take away bits of mud into the rest of the environment. The midden will also become more wet and larger until it eventually turns into a watering hole large enough to sustain wildlife.
A midden may look like it is simply a place where animals defecate however, it is vitally important to understand as it tells a complex story of life, death and communication.
Words by: Kelli Handley