By Jane Staley
Mud-coated elephants on the Mara plains
We’re hemmed in by elephants: surrounded on all sides. There are hundreds of them. All sizes. Some half coated in wet mud – like huge chocolate-coated raisins. Most are in herds, ranged in descending order like Russian dolls. Others are lone bulls weeping sticky tears of temporin, the elephantine version of testosterone. The latter are in musth, a state of sexual arousal. They’re volatile and dangerous.
We’re in an open-sided safari vehicle on the famous plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve. And the matriarchal herds are on the move. Along the banks of the river, they move in single file – mothers, sisters, cousins in swaying stately procession. A vast pewter-grey cow leads the way down an impossibly narrow pathway beaten straw-yellow by countless hooves. She’s nodding her head as if pleased with her choice of route. A baby elephant frolics along in her wake, trunk raised, a picture of joy. Momentarily confused amid the stone-grey forest of legs, the baby stumbles and is gently nudged back into position.
In the distance, another herd approaches, their great ears outspread. They’re moving fast. Is this a pre-arranged gathering of the clans? To our rear, more ghost-grey shadows gather. To the immediate right of the safari vehicle, close enough for us to hear the basso profundo rumble of their communication, yet another herd has gathered. On the hillside, another line of grey silhouettes edges its way down the scree. It’s slippery and they’re testing the ground. Huge round pancake feet delicately extended like vast, eight-ton, ballerinas.
A young bull elephant makes a sudden dash at a female. He is repelled with a trumpet of indignation. There’s a strangely pungent odour in the air: musth. A vast old bull lumbers into view. One tusk, his ‘working tusk’ is much shorter than his non-working tusk. All elephants are either right- or left-tusked.
The temporal gland above his eye is the size of a grapefruit and it’s oozing thick musth. He’s stiff-legged, doing what the scientists call ‘the musth walk.’ The message is clear, ‘I’m fit, I’m strong and I’m READY. The females eye him askance. The matriarch flaps her ears. This is the signal that the herd is ready to move off.
The bull is out of luck.
We were staying at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, one of only two lodges to be permitted to stand in the renowned Mara Triangle.
About elephants in Musth
Musth is a periodic condition in bull elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. They discharge a thick tar-like secretion called temporin from the temporal ducts on the sides of the head. Musth is linked to sexual arousal or establishing dominance, but this relationship is far from clear. Wild bulls in musth often produce a characteristic low, pulsating rumbling noise (known as “musth rumble”) which can be heard by other elephants for considerable distances; the rumble has been shown to prompt attraction and reply vocalizations from cows in heat, but silent avoidance behavior from other bulls (particularly juveniles) and non-receptive females, suggesting an evolutionary benefit to advertising the musth state.