How Male Elephants Bond

Bull elephants have a reputation as loners. But research shows that males are surprisingly sociable—until it’s time to fight

At Namibia's Etosha National Park, male elephants form long-term friendships. (Susan McConnell)
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Despite the other males’ deference, Greg still seemed agitated. He fitfully shifted his weight from one front foot to the other and spun his head around to watch his back and give his best stink eye to some phantom pursuer, as if somebody had tapped him on the shoulder in a bar, trying to pick a fight.

I scanned the horizon to see if any more bulls were heading our way. Considering Greg’s increasing agitation, I thought he might be sensing an approaching rival. In my earlier research here, I’d discovered that elephants can hear rumbles too deep for human hearing and use their feet and trunks to sense rumbles that travel through the ground for miles. Elephants can even recognize one another through these vibrations.

Perhaps Greg sensed a bull in musth. A male entering the hormonal state of musth is supposed to experience a kind of Popeye effect—the equivalent of downing a can of spinach—that trumps established dominance patterns. Not even an alpha male would risk challenging a bull elephant with a heightened level of testosterone. Or so I thought.

An elephant in musth is looking for a mate with such singularity of purpose that he hardly takes the time to eat or drink. He engages in exaggerated displays of aggressiveness such as curling the trunk across the brow with ears waving—presumably to facilitate the wafting of a sticky, musthy secretion from temporal glands above the cheek, just behind the eye—while excreting urine, sometimes to the point of gushing. The message is the elephant equivalent of “don’t even think about messing with me ’cause I’m so crazy-mad that I’ll tear your head off.” Other bulls seem to understand this body language quite well.

While Greg twitched, the mid-ranking bulls were in a state of upheaval. Each seemed to be showing his good relations with higher-ranking individuals: Spencer leaned against Keith on one side, and Jack on the other, placing his trunk in Keith’s mouth—Keith being a favorite of the don. The most sought-after connection was with Greg himself, who often allowed certain privileged lower-ranking individuals to drink right next to him.

But today Greg was in no mood for brotherly backslapping. Stoly, who ordinarily enjoyed Greg’s beneficence, cowered in the overflow from the trough, the lowest-ranking position where water quality was poorest. He sucked his trunk, as if uncertain how to negotiate his place in the hierarchy.

By now I had been in the tower two hours; it was nearly noon, and the day had turned hot and bleak. It had been a particularly dry year, so the trees were parched and the clearing especially stark. As Greg became more and more agitated, I could sense that nobody wanted to be in the presence of an angry don.

Finally the explanation strode in on four legs, his shoulders high and head up, clearly looking for trouble. It was the third-ranking bull, Kevin, the group bully who frequently sparred with the lower-ranking bulls. I could identify him by his wide-splayed tusks and bald tail. I could also see the tell-tale sign of urine dribbling from his penis sheath, and, judging from his posture and long stride, he appeared ready to take on Greg. Kevin was obviously in musth.

I had never witnessed a musth bull challenging a dominant bull, and as Kevin arrived at the water hole, I was on the edge of my seat. I suspected that Greg had been avoiding Kevin, and I fully expected Greg either to back down or to get the daylights beaten out of him. Everything I had read suggested that a rival in musth had the advantage in a fight with a top-ranking bull. Such confrontations have even been known to end in death.

Female elephants live much of their lives apart from males, in family groups led by a matriarch. A mother, grandmother and maybe even a great-grandmother live together with daughters, nieces, granddaughters and their offspring—on average, about 15 individuals. Young males leave the group when they are between 12 and 15 years old; the females stay together as long as they live, which can be up to 70 years. The matriarch, usually the oldest in the group, makes decisions about where and when to move and rest, on both a daily and seasonal basis.


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