Zootherapeutic uses of animals excreta: the case of elephant dung and urine use in Sayaboury province, Laos

J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2021 Oct 28;17(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s13002-021-00484-7.


Background: Despite a widespread aversion towards faeces and urine, animal excreta are used in traditional medicine in many countries since centuries, but records are scattered and few therapeutic uses have been accurately documented while in the current context of emerging zoonoses such records may be of major interest.

Methodology: In this study, we investigated the therapeutic uses that mahouts in Xayaboury province, Lao PDR make of elephant urine and faeces as well as of the brood chamber that beetles (Heliocopris dominus) fashion from elephant dung. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with mahouts on elephant diet, health problems and responses to disease, andwhether they use elephant products. Data were supplemented by interviews with traditional healers.

Results: Seven respondents reported the use of elephant urine in ethnoveterinary care for elephants and in human medicine in case of diabetes and otitis. 25 respondents reported therapeutic use of elephant faeces (EF) and elephant dung beetle brood chambers. The major indications are gastrointestinal and skin problems. Macerations or decoctions are drunk or used externally as a lotion. The mahouts attribute the therapeutic effectiveness of EFs to their content which includes the remains of many species from the elephant diet which they consider to be medicinal.

Discussion: The indications of these uses are consistent with pharmacological and clinical studies highlighting the properties of different animals' urine and faeces and their curative potential tested in vivo. The acknowledgement by the mahouts of medicinal properties of elephant faecal bolus contrasts with the rare justifications of animal material use recorded in zootherapeutic studies, which falls within the symbolic domain. However, numerous studies highlight the preponderant role of the microbiota in physiological processes, raising the hypothesis of a curative action of EF, by rebalancing the user's microbiota.

Conclusion: The therapeutic uses of EF preparations despite their possible curative properties are a potential source of zoonotic transmission from elephants to humans. In the current context of globalisation of trade which favours the emergence of zoonoses and in relation with the issue of One Health, it becomes crucial to further document the zootherapeutic practices to prevent emerging diseases. As elephants and local related ethnoethological knowledge are threatened, documenting them is urgent to contribute to their preservation.

Keywords: Asian elephant; Elephas maximus; Faeces; Feces; Lao PDR; Urine; Zoonotic transmission; Zootherapy.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Elephants*
  • Feces*
  • Laos
  • Medicine, Traditional*
  • Urine*