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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As I watched the boys’ club disappear in a long chalky line into the trees, I wondered if paying respects to the don went beyond maintaining the pecking order. I felt a little crazy even thinking it, but these bull elephants, who weren’t necessarily related, were behaving like family.

A few seasons have passed since that afternoon at Etosha.This past summer Greg developed a gaping hole near the tip of his trunk—probably an abscess. It caused him to spill water as he drank. He appeared to have lost a lot of weight, and he spent a lot of time soaking his wound after drinking. He seemed extremely grumpy, casting off friendly overtures with a crack of his ears. It looked like he didn’t want company.

Yet on occasion he still came to the water hole with his younger contingent: Keith, Tim and Spencer, as well as some new recruits, Little Donnie and Little Richie. The newcomers made me wonder if Greg might pull through this rough patch. The youngsters were fresh out of their matriarchal families and looking for company, and they seemed eager to be by Greg’s side. Despite his crabby mood, Greg seemed to still know how to attract young constituents—those that might be there for him during conflicts with challengers who aren’t in musth.

As we were packing up to leave for the season, Greg lumbered in for one of his long drinking sessions—his new recruits in tow. The younger bulls had long since left the area by the time Greg had finished soaking his trunk and was ready to depart. Despite being alone, he initiated his ritual rumbling as he left—his long, low calls unanswered—as if engaging in an old habit that wouldn’t die.

It was a haunting scene. I stopped and watched through my night vision scope. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as he stood at the edge of the clearing. What was he waiting for?

Later, I got my answer. I heard rumbles in the distance—two bulls vocalizing. When I looked through my night vision scope again, I saw that Greg was with Keith. Perhaps Keith, having had his drink hours earlier, had returned to collect him.

Greg and Keith walked out together, each in turn rumbling and flapping his ears. They lumbered up a path and out of sight.

I felt relieved.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell is an ecologist at Stanford University and the author of The Elephant’s Secret Sense. Susan McConnell is a neurobiologist at Stanford.


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