In this incredible up-close capture, two immense elephant bulls fight for dominance as they shatter trees like toothpicks.
“It was a stunning moment to see these two elephant bulls fight,” offers Wildlife Photographer Sara Zegut. On one of her many African safaris, Zegut and her group got closer than planned to a rivalry of giants.
Zegut “got a bit frightened being so close to them, but it was amazing,” she says; an absolutely valid set of emotions. On display in front of her is the sheer size and power of the African elephant, the largest land mammal living today
There are two species of African elephant, and these enormous bulls (males) looks to be African Bush Elephants (Loxodonta africana). As they do battle, trees snap like toothpicks in their wake – and it is awe inspiring:
Bulls will spar for many reasons. But a battle this fierce is likely the result of the musth.
What is Elephant Musth?
The term “elephant musth” refers to a specific physiological condition that occurs in bulls. Like “The Rut” for elk, It is a period of heightened sexual and aggressive behavior in adult males.
Increasing testosterone levels and changes in their overall demeanor mean tempers flare and rivalries form during musths. In fact, this state can raise testosterone levels 60 times higher than usual levels. Such a drastic hormonal change leads to several behavioral and physical changes, such as:
- Aggressiveness: Male elephants in musth become highly aggressive and may exhibit unpredictable and territorial behavior. They can be more likely to engage in conflicts with other elephants or even humans.
- Secretions: Musth elephants produce a strong-smelling secretion known as temporin from glands located on the sides of their faces. This secretion, along with urine dribbling, gives off a distinct odor that can be detected from a considerable distance.
- Swelling of temporal glands: The temporal glands, located on the sides of the elephant’s head, may become swollen during musth.
- Urination and dribbling: Musth elephants may urinate more frequently and may also have a continuous dribble of urine during this period.
- Increased vocalizations: Male elephants in musth might vocalize more than usual, producing low-frequency rumbles and trumpeting calls.
The exact triggers and duration of musth vary between bulls. But this state typically lasts for a few weeks to a few months.
Musth is also thought to be associated with mating and reproductive behavior, like The Rut, as it often coincides with the peak breeding season. This natural phenomenon plays an essential role in the social dynamics and reproduction of populations in kind.
As the video above illustrates, however, bulls in musth can become incredibly dangerous to all nearby beings, not just other bulls. The species should always be treated with caution, but their heightened musth aggression can lead to deadly consequences for both elephants and humans in close proximity.
For more on the remarkable lives of African elephants, see our ‘Secrets of the Elephants’ Dr. Paula Kahumbu on the age-old human-elephant relationship and our duty to preserve it (exclusive) next.