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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Field Note: Fearsome Bull Elephant Musth

Published: April 14, 2019


By Mark Seth Lender


A close-up of an African Elephant. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender reflects on witnessing a bull elephant when he comes into musth, and becomes a force of nature that demands respect.

Bull elephants become sexually active at about twenty years of age. By that time they have been adults for a while, gathered in groups of their own gender orbiting the same general territory as the main herds composed of juveniles of both sexes, and ruled by adult females. The bulls are usually placid, in my experience more so than the females who, after all, have greater responsibilities and concerns. Placid, that is, until they come into musth, the testosterone-fueled urge to mate. When that happens they become a force of nature.

Elephants know how big they are. This is a good thing. A black mamba is apt to inform you of your excessive proximity by striking the middle of your chest. The mamba is on a short fuse. I think at least in part because while good-sized as snakes go, the mamba is small as compared to you. Mambas take no chances. An elephant on the other hand has the luxury of being able to warn you first.

However, if poachers have murdered one of the members of the herd, elephants become vengeful, as humans would be in similar circumstances. When you hear of someone (tourist or professional) killed deliberately by an elephant who came up on them from behind or otherwise unannounced, that is the likely backstory. Always pay more attention to what the elephant wants than what you want.

What was charming about our bull in musth is he enjoyed it. He enjoyed pushing us back. If he wasn’t puffing himself up, why did he bother, showing us what he knew we knew already. That he had right of way, that he was The Boss. After all, he and his penis had in their collective intention other plans. We were a sideshow.

So again: He must have enjoyed it.

So did I.

Hear Mark Seth Lender read this essay

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