While sipping tea one morning and enjoying the expansive view of a water hole from my 25-foot-tall research tower, I could see a storm of epic proportions brewing.
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My colleagues, students, volunteers and I were at Mushara, a remote water source in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, to study the dynamics of an all-male society, bull elephant style. I’d been coming to this site for 19 years to study elephants, and the complexity of the bulls’ relationships was becoming more and more striking to me.
Male elephants have a reputation as loners. But in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where the longest-running studies on male elephants have been conducted, bulls have been observed to have a best friend with whom they associate for years. Another study, in Botswana, found that younger males seek out older males and learn social behaviors from them. In my previous field seasons at Mushara, I’d noticed that males had not just one close buddy but several, and that these large groups of males of mixed ages persisted for many years. Of the 150 bulls that we were monitoring, the group I was particularly interested in, which I called the “boys’ club,” comprised up to 15 individuals—a dominant bull and his entourage. Bulls of all ages appeared remarkably close, physically demonstrating their friendship.
Why was this group so large and its members so tight? What held them together? And how was dominance decided and maintained? Now, as I trained my binoculars at the water hole, I looked for answers to these questions, and witnessed a showdown.
Like many other animals, elephants form a strict hierarchy, which reduces conflicts over scarce resources such as water, food and mates. At Mushara, an artesian well provides the best water, which is funneled into a concrete trough—a remnant of an old cattle farm built before this area was incorporated into the park. The outflow of the well at the head of the trough, which has the cleanest, most palatable water and is equivalent to the head of a table, was clearly reserved for the top-ranking elephant—the one I referred to as the don.
As five members of the boys’ club arrived for a drink, I quickly noticed that two young, low-ranking bulls weren’t up to their usual antics. Jack and Spencer, as I called them, were agitated. They kept shifting their weight and seemed desperate for reassurance, with one or the other holding his trunk out tentatively, as if seeking comfort from a higher- ranking bull’s ritualized trunk-to-mouth greeting.
Keith and Stoly, more senior bulls, ignored these attempts at engagement. They offered no reassuring gestures such as a trunk over a youngster’s back, or an ear over a head or rear. Instead, they and the younger bulls seemed to be watching Greg, the don. And he was obviously in a foul temper.
Greg, about 40 years old, was distinguishable by two square notches out of the lower portion of his left ear. But there was something else, something visible from a long way off, that identified him. This guy had the confidence of a general—the way he held his head, his casual swagger. And for years now, whenever Greg strutted up to the water hole, the other bulls slowly backed away to allow him access.
When Greg settled in to drink, each bull in turn approached him with an outstretched, quivering trunk, dipping the tip into Greg’s mouth as though kissing a human don’s ring. After performing this ritual and seeing a placated Greg, each bull’s shoulders seemed to relax and each slouched submissively away from Greg’s preferred drinking spot.
It was a behavior that never failed to impress me—one of those reminders that human beings are not as unique in social complexity as we like to think. This culture was steeped in ritual.