A walk with ‘swag’

Sabi Sand | March 2016

There is always something quite disconcerting about an elephant bull moving towards you. When a large bull walks with a ‘swag’ you know you are about to shift into reverse and change your route. For all guides that are in tune with animal behaviour this is often a fair course of warning to avoid a bull elephant with this type of temperament. Clear indications of elephant bulls in a heightened state of testosterone is known as musth.

Musth is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterised by more aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. As bull elephants mature, they will engage with other bulls of similar sizes and on occasion this may result in sparring between the giants, allowing for the opportunity to understand their own strength.

There is a three weeks pre-musth-condition, about one month high-musth, and one post-musth condition. Their temporal glands become swollen, from where a strong smelling fluid, rich in testosterone, runs down on their cheeks. The bulls will discharge an almost continuous dribble of pungent urine that creates a scent trail as they walk. On occasion this smell can linger in an area for several days around their faeces.

It is always best to view these impressive male elephants from a distance. Understanding their irritability and interpreting their behaviour during their interactions amongst other bull elephants or females can be very interesting.