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Teenage elephants need a father figure

The swaggering, the aggression, the attitude…headstrong teenagers can be scary. Even more so when they’re eight feet tall and weigh six tonnes.

The swaggering, the aggression, the attitude…headstrong teenagers can be scary. Even more so when they’re eight feet tall and weigh six tonnes.

When Gus Van Dyk was an ecologist at Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa, he was worried by a series of attacks on the park’s rhino. As described in the BBC Earth Podcast, badly mutilated rhino carcasses were discovered, over 50 in all, with wounds to the top of the shoulders and neck, which suggested, worryingly, elephants. Elephant attacks on rhinos are not unknown, and jostles at watering holes are fairly common, but this volume of attacks was unusual. Further investigation by Van Dyk revealed that the suspects were a group of adolescent male elephants (their teenage years are the same as ours – between 12 and 20 years old) who were clearly experiencing heightened aggression.

This out of control gang of elephants, between 15 and 18, appeared to be in “musth”. This is a unique state to elephants, in which young males, usually in their 20s, are flooded with reproductive hormones. They swagger, make themselves look taller, and dribble strongly smelling liquid from temporal glands on either side of their heads, as well as producing a constant stream of urine from their penises. It’s basically a form of “here I am, I’m fit and healthy and looking for a mate”, as well as a promotion in the elephant pecking order.

Musth is a unique state to elephants, in which young males, usually in their 20s, are flooded with reproductive hormones © Arindam Bhattacharya/Getty
Musth is a unique state to elephants, in which young males, usually in their 20s, are flooded with reproductive hormones © Arindam Bhattacharya/Getty

The scary part is as well as the urge to mate going into overdrive, the males become very aggressive to the extent that two males in musth will fight to the death, tipping each other over so they can stab their victim with their tusks.

The normal safeguard is when an elephant in musth encounters a bigger bull elephant, he immediately drops out of musth as he knows his testosterone cannot compete. A young male may only be in musth for a few days. As he ages the length of his musth periods increase until by the time he’s in his forties, he can handle it and his musth period could be weeks.

These were late adolescent elephants, though, without the experience of operating as a male in a large social group. Van Dyk identified the probable cause; in the late 1970s, Pilanesberg National Park had been seeded with elephants from other national parks, like Kruger. Huge bull elephants were extremely difficult to transport, so young males, females and babies were introduced. As a result, there were no older bull elephants to push these youngsters out of musth. The huge rush of testosterone was overwhelming them and driving them to aggressive behaviour.

Van Dyk realised that musth was the key to stopping this delinquent gang, so the decision was to either control it artificially, castrate the young males or go back to basics and find a natural solution. The answer, he felt, was to put a natural stopper on the musth by introducing big bull elephants.

The normal safeguard is when an elephant in musth encounters a bigger bull elephant, he immediately drops out of musth as he knows his testosterone cannot compete © Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty
The normal safeguard is when an elephant in musth encounters a bigger bull elephant, he immediately drops out of musth as he knows his testosterone cannot compete © Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty

He was right. Six large bulls were introduced from Kruger National Park, who towered over the adolescents, and literally within hours, the teen thugs had dropped out of musth. No more rhinos have been killed since by rampaging youngsters.

This musth story was used in an American academic paper as an example in human adolescence of the importance of a stable society and a father figure to provide boundaries for teen males. The young males that were getting into these elephant gangs had no template of good social behaviour and were at the mercy of their rampaging hormones, which was putting them at as much risk as those around them. The result was a happy ending for the elephants in Pilanesberg, and one from which maybe we can learn.


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By Lucy Freeman
Featured image by Julia Cumes / Aurora Photos / Getty

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