The wind is howling today in elephant country. Half way through the season and we’ve been lucky to have had only two such days. The wind is making it difficult to concentrate on data management, but after such an active day yesterday, it’s a necessity. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together is best done fresh.
The extremely dry year at Mushara waterhole, in the northeast corner of Etosha National Park, Namibia, means that family groups have broken up into small sub-family units, presumably because there isn’t enough to eat to support moving in larger groups. The water quality at Mushara this year also makes the trek up north less desirable.
We took a brief safari over to the neighboring waterhole, Kameeldoring, yesterday to see if any of our resident elephants were spending time over there. We arrived at the expansive clearing and large body of water to Crumpled Ear’s extended family of about 45 individuals, give or take a few young bulls stretching their wings of independence that were hanging about with some of the older bulls, Jay being one of them. Their leisurely stay meant we were able to get some great IDs on some of the older females–individuals we only see through night vision at Mushara when they sneak in during the wee hours a few times a season.
Almost everything that could happen in elephant country happened yesterday, and over the course of a few hours of observations, more than a hundred elephants had come and gone. At one point, I counted 92 individuals in view at one time.
There were the typical dominance interactions between family groups, the Athletes barreling in to displace a small group of Crumpled Ear’s family from the source of the spring, while the rest of the family dusted and nursed their young (above), the little ones frolicking and romping in the mud together, as bulls sparred and tested their will, including one young bull mounting a reluctant subordinate who managed to escape in a hurried retreat.
There was the inevitable young male that stayed behind to spar with a buddy and had lost track of his family just receding into the bush line. He went trumpeting around the clearing, scattering any animal in his path, including a family of zebras before he finally figured out where they were. The family seemed unperturbed by his outburst, which probably spoke to their frequent experience of such outbursts from males of this age.
As we sat in the noonday sun soaking up the elephant soap opera and trying to ignore the heat, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the drama. Enter a bull elephant in musth and suddenly the physical and psychological landscape changed. Smokey arrived, redefining the horizon with all of his glorious pomp and circumstance—a kingly stride and head held high, trunk curling overhead, ears waving, purposefully broadcasting his scent as he pranced theatrically around the perimeter of the pan.
We watched Smokey in awe when the true king of the savannah’s arrival quickly turned chaotic. We happened to be in his path.
Smokey’s head towered far above us as the path of his musth walk led directly toward us. He dragged his trunk on the ground, grabbing sand and flinging it across his face as he curled his trunk overhead again, a musthy request for us to clear the way.
His stench permeated the air as he loomed over us, urine gushing through his penis sheath and spilling down his wet legs, his temporal glands swollen to the size of grapefruits and oozing down his cheeks.
With some fast coordination between trucks and an adrenaline rush by all, we quelled Smokey’s dramatic request for our retreat by reversing enough for him to get to the source of the spring unobstructed. We moved down spring and down wind, and kept an eye on him as we tried to continue our data collection.
Smokey sauntered down a line of females, sticking his trunk between their legs and provoking a urination from each. He carefully sampled each urine patch by placing his trunk from wet sand to mouth in order to reach the vomeronasal organ and assess each female’s hormonal status. After determining that there were no females of interest here, he stood at the highest point in the landscape to curl his trunk overhead again, as if drumming his chest in ownership of this place. Satisfied with his performance, he sauntered off into the bush, creating a grey boulder that never seemed to get smaller as he went.
Hours past lunchtime as it was, we too decided to retreat. We headed back to camp and enjoyed Wynona’s small family group coming in for a sunset drink, while we recounted our experience of Smokey’s magnificence, an image not soon to be forgotten.
-Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, is the author of the new books Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts (Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015)