Only a colossal a**hole could produce elephant dung coffee.
CHANG SAEN, Thailand; MADURAI, India––Marketed as a lucrative rump enterprise in support of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, elephant dung coffee might at first sniff suggest an easy free market approach to fundraising to rescue elephants, of particular appeal to status-seeking Republicans.
But even if the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is all it cracks itself up to be, and even if Black Ivory Coffee founder Blake Dinkin is not just another elephant bullshit artist, reality is that the vast majority of elephants in captivity worldwide are in temples, zoos, circuses, and other exploitative environments, and that Dinkin has in effect invented a way to profitably factory-farm the world’s largest land mammal.
The trick is just to feed the elephants coffee beans, collect the undigested kernels, called “cherries,” from the elephants’ dung, and process the cherries into high-end coffee.
“In Bad Taste”
Claims Dinkin on the Black Ivory Coffee web site, “Research by [food science professor Massimo] Marcone at the University of Guelph indicates that during digestion, the enzymes of the elephant break down coffee protein. Since protein is one of the main factors responsible for bitterness in coffee, less protein means almost no bitterness. As well, in contrast to carnivores,” such as the caged civets used to produce civet coffee in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia by a similar process, “herbivores such as elephants use much more fermentation for digestion. Fermentation is desirable in coffee, as it helps to impart the fruit from the coffee pulp into the bean in much the same way as grapes ferment in a vat to make wine.”
Altogether, the beans spend about 17 hours in the elephants’ digestive tracts.
Dinkin, 44, a Canadian expatriate living in Thailand, claims to have spent ten years discovering this shit before stepping into the business. Marcone, his advisor about elephant digestion, is perhaps best known as author of a book entitled In Bad Taste, A Quest for the World’s Most Exotic Foods (2007).
“Initially, Dinkin considered using civets to make kopi luwak coffee,” summarized former food safety professor Doug Powell, of Brisbane, Australia, in a recent edition of BarfBlog. “But the quality of the end product [of civets] has weakened as demand has grown in Southeast Asia. Lions and giraffes also made the short list of prospective coffee filters, but eventually Dinkin settled on elephants after discovering that the creatures sometimes eat coffee during periods of drought in Southeast Asia.”
Continues Dinkin’s spiel, “Eight percent of Black Ivory Coffee sales help fund a specialist elephant veterinarian to provide free care to elephants in Thailand through the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Additional funds will be used to purchase medicine to treat sick elephants.
“Production of Black Ivory Coffee also provides valuable income for the wives of the mahouts [elephant handlers],” to help cover health expenses, school fees, food, and clothing. We pay women 100 baht per kilogram of coffee cherry [collected from elephant poop],” Dinkin says. “In contrast an average coffee picker earns seven baht per kilogram in Thailand. As a result the women who work for us can earn a legal day’s wage in 45 minutes.”
Trying to make a buck out of elephant poop is scarcely an original idea, and indeed has long been done to help support captive herds kept by nonprofit organizations. A gent named Kenny Kring began marketing composted elephant dung as a garden fertilizer called ZooDoo in 1983, starting with leavings from the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Within a few years major zoos all over the U.S. were participating in ZooDoo collection and sales, and the retail chain Bloomingdale’s was among the marketers.
About a decade later, after someone realized that the elephant digestive system produces a fiber-rich mash similar in chemical composition and texture to the mid-production stage of the paper-making process, zoo gift shops began selling souvenir elephant dung stationery.
Of the Black Ivory Coffee venture, Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation director John Roberts told Agence France-Presse reporter Amelie Bottollier-Depois, “I thought it was well worth a try because we’re looking for anything that can help elephants to make a living.”
Five tons of coffee beans
Production, according to Dinkin, “has increased from 70 kilograms in 2012 to 150 kilograms in 2015, with about 33 pounds of coffee beans being fed to the elephants to produce each pound of the final product. At two pounds per kilo, that means the elephants used to make Black Ivory Coffee ate nearly five tons of coffee beans among them.
“Due to limited production and to ensure that Black Ivory Coffee is served properly, we only supply select five star hotels,” says Dinkin, trying to protect the cachet of coffee that presently sells for as much as $13 per cup and a few years ago reportedly brought $50 a cup. “We do not sell to cafes or though distributors. Limits to production,” according to Dinkin, “include the availability of high quality coffee cherries, the appetite of the elephants, the number of beans destroyed through chewing, and the ability of the mahouts and their wives to pick the beans by hand.”
But those are Dinkin’s limitations, not inherent limits to the growth of the elephant coffee industry.
4,000 captive eles in Thailand
Currently the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has a monopoly on the elephant end of the production process. Reality, however, is that while the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has custody of about 30 elephants, there are as many as 4,000 captive elephants in Thailand, estimated as being up to 95% of the total Thai elephant population.
There is no inherent obstacle to anyone else with an elephant, or elephants, feeding those elephants coffee beans and cleaning up––if there really is a significant market for the product.
Given enough asshole investors, elephant coffee production could easily overtake civet coffee production. Because elephants poop much more than civets, increased production could drop the price per cup into the Starbucks range.
Mechanizing the bean collection would be as easy as mechanizing any other sorting process that separates a small, relatively hard material from a large amount of soft material. The machines that remove the seeds from apple sauce could probably do the job.
Could produce while performing
And captive elephants could produce elephant coffee at the same time as performing at the 150-odd tourist-oriented “camps and zoos featuring elephants tightrope walking, playing football or performing in painting contests” deplored by Amelie Bottollier-Depois in her Agence France-Press feature on Black Ivory Coffee.
Moreover, a growing elephant coffee industry could accelerate what Bottollier-Depois described as “a rapacious trade in wild elephants to meet the demands of Thailand’s tourist industry.”
“Even the so-called rescue charities are trying to buy elephants,” acknowledged Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation director Roberts.
Poachers in neighboring Laos and Myanmar shoot or electrocute older elephants to collect ivory, then sell their babies to Thai smugglers who pass the babies off as having been born in the captive elephant camps.
Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends sanctuary near Bangkok, has for nearly 15 years tried to expose the bootleg elephant traffic, along with the corruption within the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation that makes it possible. The department retaliated by repeatedly raiding Wildlife Friends, beginning on February 13, 2012, bringing charges against Wiek and his wife Jansaeng “Noi” Sangnanork that were finally dismissed by the Thai Court of Appeals on February 27, 2014
“We don’t buy elephants,” says Roberts, but the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation also has mercantile origins. After introducing elephant polo to Thailand at Hua Hin beach circa 2003, U.S. hotelier Bill Heinecke in 2006 moved his elephant polo operations to the Golden Triangle and formed the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation as a nonprofit umbrella for the elephant husbandry.
According to The Perks of Elephant Polo by Ron Gluckman (2009), “Heinecke’s Minor Corporation owns a pair of hotels run by Four Seasons and its own Anantara brand. Both properties not only host a herd of elephants, but celebrate the mammals in every aspect of design, from fixtures to fountains. With 160 acres, the Anantara is practically an elephant sanctuary.”
Elaborated Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press in 2012, “Elephants are taken off the streets and moved to the resort grounds, where they become part of a diverse package of elephant programs. Guests are given the chance to train as a mahout, wash and feed the elephant, or simply marvel at the huge mammals. Mahouts, in a sense, become subcontractors, given housing and a monthly salary, plus food for the animal. In return, the mahouts provide trekking and other services for guests. At Four Seasons Tented Camp next door, that means parading to breakfast to the oohs and ahs of guests every morning, but otherwise just foraging the lush grounds.”
While most animal charities concerned with elephants oppose elephant trekking and elephant polo as forms of exploitation, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is scarcely the first to embrace both as funding mechanisms. The late Mark Shand, younger brother of British Prince Charles’ wife Camilla Parker Bowles, promoted both elephant trekking and elephant polo. Shand in 2002 founded a charity called The Elephant Family to undertake a variety of conservation and welfare projects benefiting Asian elephants.
The animal hospital and sanctuary Help In Suffering, of Jaipur, India, and the Wildlife Trust of India had since August 2001 presented clinics for the elephants and their mahouts who ferry tourists up a steep hill to the Amber Fort, the major tourist attraction in the Jaipur area.
Funds raised in part by the proceeds from Shand’s elephant polo matches enabled Help In Suffering to hold more frequent clinics. But the elephant polo matches became controversial in 2006-2007. Facing protests led by PETA-India, and reprimands from the Animal Welfare Board of India, The Elephant Family and Help In Suffering both withdrew from involvement in elephant polo.
The Jaipur elephant polo matches were suspended in 2009-2010 due to litigation meant to stop them altogether, but resumed as a tourist attraction in 2011, no longer for the benefit of animal charities.
Do elephants need caffeine?
But, the ethics of elephant trekking and polo aside, is internally brewing coffee and frequently experiencing reverse coffee enemas healthy for the elephants who are induced into it?
“My initial thought was about caffeine––won’t the elephants get wired on it or addicted to coffee?” Roberts elaborated to Gecker of Associated Press. “But as far as we can tell, there is definitely no harm to the elephants.”
Added Gecker, “Before presenting his proposal to the Gold Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Dinkin said he worked with a Canadian-based veterinarian who ran blood tests on zoo elephants showing they don’t absorb any caffeine from eating raw coffee cherries.”
Wildlife SOS disagrees
Kartick Satyanarayan, however, as cofounder of Wildlife SOS and the Elephant Conservation & Care Center in Mathura, India, takes a distinctly different view––albeit that Satyanarayan took several days to consult his veterinarians before formulating his opinion and responding to an ANIMALS 24-7 request for comment.
Summarized the Wildlife SOS elephant vets, “We perhaps cannot be absolutely sure that elephants would experience all the symptoms that humans experience from caffeine. However, if elephants are fed with coffee beans [in amounts larger than the relatively small quantities they might normally forage in the wild], we could expect symptoms like diarrhea, colic, insomnia, ketones in urine, hyperglycemia and hyper-excitability.
“Further,” the Wildlife SOS vets continued in a written statement, “it may be noted that a lot of digestive enzymes in the elephant’s stomach would be required to digest the protein layer of the coffee, which is what reduces the bitterness. But this will definitely cause digestive stress to the elephants, as a lot of the digestive enzymes will be used up to dissolve the protein layer on the coffee bean. Therefore the enzymes available for the digestion of the elephant’s fodder will be drastically reduced. This means the elephant won’t get the required nutrition,” at least in theory.
“For proving this,” the Wildlife SOS vets qualified, “periodic hemato biochemical and urine analysis would be required. The overall activity pattern of the elephants would need to be observed and compared with the normal animals.”
In view of the veterinary advice, Satyanrayan said, “I think we can conclude that its not healthy for elephants to be fed coffee beans.”