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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fearsome Bull Elephant Musth

Air Date: Week of

Bull elephants tend to stay on the outskirts of the herd until mating season arrives. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Seth Lender)

Bull elephants reach maturity at about 20 years. Typically, these bulls are gentle giants, who reside at the edges of the herd. That all changes during mating season when they come into musth. As Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender tells us, when that happens bull elephants can become a force of nature.


CURWOOD: As the rhino poacher in South Africa found out, a close encounter with an elephant can be deadly or at least risky as Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, also discovered.

LENDER: A herd of elephants is crossing the road. All of the adults as is usual, female. We stop at a respectful distance and turn the motor off and let the elephants pass. Branches snap. Leaves rustle and give way as they climb up into the forest on the other side. After they can no longer be seen we can still hear them. The won’t turn back but we wait, giving them time, before we start the engine.

Just then, just as we start to move, a bull elephant in full musth breaches cover.

At first the bull does not even see us.

Then he does.

And everything changes.

His head swings his eyes go wide, lock onto the offending scene and he leans first towards then away from us.

“What? WHAT!”

He does not have to say it for us to hear it.

The driver jams the stick into reverse and the little jeep pulls back fifty yards, not fast enough to antagonize him more than we have already, but fast, and keeps the engine idling.

The bull elephant comes to exactly where we stood.

As if there is a line in the dirt.


Lowers his head.

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

The ichor of arousal runs a dark river from his temples and down his checks. Standing in the shade he himself seems not elephant grey but almost black. Glossy black. Towering, ten feet over us.

We move back again. Further this time.

Again, he comes to where we were.

Once more we pull away and finally, it is enough. He gives us a head toss, kicks a cloud of dirt in our direction, and in an attitude of body and tusks and trunk that can only be described as disdain, walks away from us in his big, swaying, slow-motion elephant walk that is faster than the fastest man on earth can run, and blunts his way into the forest toward where the object of his ardor has decamped.

Lucky for us he had something on his mind.

Other than rage.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender.



World Wildlife Fund | “African Elephant”

BBC Earth | “Male Elephants in Musth Fight for Dominance”

See more on Mark Seth Lender’s website

Mark’s fieldwork was sponsored by Donald Young Safaris


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