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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Then Kevin lowered his head. Greg seized the moment. He dragged his own trunk on the ground and stamped purposefully forward, lunging at Kevin until the lesser bull was finally able to maneuver behind a concrete bunker we use for ground-level observations.

Feet stamping in a sideways dance, thrusting their jaws out at each other, the two bulls faced each other across the bunker. Greg tossed his trunk across the nine-foot divide in what appeared to be frustration. At last he was able to break the standoff, catching Kevin in a sideways attack and getting him out in the open.

Kevin retreated a few paces, then turned and walked out of the clearing, defeated.

I was blown away by what I had just witnessed. A high-ranking bull in musth was supposed to be invincible. Were the rules of musth different for bulls that have spent most of their time in a close social group? Kevin hadn’t frightened Greg; if anything, Kevin’s musth appeared to fuel Greg’s aggression. Greg, I realized, would simply not tolerate a usurpation of his power.

My mind raced over the possible explanations. Had Etosha’s arid environment created a different social atmosphere than Amboseli’s, where similar conflicts had had the opposite outcome? Perhaps water scarcity influenced social structure—even the dynamics of musth.

Could it be that the don had an influence over the other males’ hormones? This phenomenon is well documented in the primate world. And in two instances in South Africa, when older bulls had been reintroduced to a territory, younger bulls had then cycled out of musth. Did a bull have to leave his group to go into musth? This episode with Kevin made me think that just might be the case. And that would explain why musth bulls are usually alone while they search for females.

When the dust settled, some of the lower-ranking bulls still seemed agitated. The boys’ club never really returned to normal for the rest of the day.

In the early afternoon, Greg determined it was time to leave. He set the trajectory, leaning forward and laying his trunk on the ground—as if gathering information to inform his decision. He remained frozen in that position for more than a minute before pointing his body in a new direction.

When Greg finally decided to head west, he flapped his ears and emitted a long, barely audible low-frequency call that has been described as a “let’s go” rumble. This was met with ear flapping and low rumbles from several other bulls. On some days, I’d seen him give a shove of encouragement to a younger bull reluctant to line up and leave the water hole. This time, it was Keith who was balking; Greg put his head against Keith’s rear and pushed. The bulls finished drinking and headed out in a long line, Greg in the lead.

Dominance among female elephants means leading. The matriarch decides where the group should go and when. Dominance in bulls has been thought to be different, a temporary measure of who could stay on top of the heap, who could physically overpower the other members of the group and mate with the most females. It isn’t about caring whether the group sticks together. But dominance seemed to mean something more complicated to these bulls. I began to wonder whether I was witnessing not just dominance but something that might be called leadership. Greg certainly appeared to be rounding up the group and leading his bulls to another carefully selected venue.


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