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Ozzie the Unstoppable Elephant

No one informed Ozzie that he’s too young to go into musth. Somehow the dynamics of Mushara’s male elephant society over the past few years have allowed this young bull’s testosterone spikes to slip through the cracks unsuppressed, resulting in an unholy terror. Ozzie in musth has been unstoppable.

In contrast to the magnificent Smokey who behaves like any self-respecting dominant musth bull should—being kindly to curious young males who appear in awe of his status, while keeping a firm grip on the competition—Ozzie defies nature. So far, I have only witnessed one challenge to Smokey’s musth status, nine seasons ago now, during a wet year with lots of competition. The musth bull, #108 as he was documented at the time, lost the contest, never to be seen again. As far as we’ve experienced, no nonmusth bull has ever tried to confront Smokey—they know the drill—testosterone trumps all (with one character acceptation being Greg who appeared to suppress others from going into musth, possibly even forcing the third-ranking Kevin out of musth).

In contrast, many of the older bulls in the population have tried to put the young musth-ridden Ozzie in his place, but to no effect. When they see the elephantine locomotive coming at them, it’s as if they take a step back and train their gaze on this anomaly and ask, “Really? Is this pipsqueak for real?”

They’d touch their trunk to their mouths in a gesture of uncertainty, and then they’d approach Ozzie with unease, ears folded, trunk outstretched as if to keep him at a distance from which they could safely assess the situation and confirm their original hunch. “Son, we don’t allow such behavior here.” They’d wrap trunks and try to thrust Ozzie’s weight backward with a touch of violence, as if to say, “you’re liable to get hurt if you carry on like this.”

Mike tries to put Ozzie in his place in 2014. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Mike tries to put Ozzie in his place in 2014. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

But the devil pushes back.

Ozzie is not deterred by Mike’s efforts. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Ozzie is not deterred by Mike’s efforts. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Ozzie enters the space that the older bulls try to create between them and drags his trunk in it as if to deface sacred ground while waving one ear and then the other, curling his trunk over his head in defiance and pushes forward—hard—first pressing his trunk against their forehead with ears folded, head high and tusks locked and loaded.

Almost the same interaction between Ozzie and Mike played out yesterday just as it had last season. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Almost the same interaction between Ozzie and Mike played out yesterday just as it had last season. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

At this point, the older bull prances a bit at this unexpected insubordination, but something in their posture says that their confidence has been shaken. They try one more time to wrangle the menace, only for the interaction to quickly disintegrate into a full-on clash, inevitably resulting in a vulnerable running retreat like what happened yesterday with the full bull, Mike—an interaction that played out exactly as it had in the previous season.

 Mike tries to make a quick getaway from Ozzie, just as he had done the previous season. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Mike tries to make a quick getaway from Ozzie, just as he had done the previous season. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

So far, I have witnessed the full bulls Luke, Jeff, Mike, and Prince Charles try to put Ozzie in his place to no avail. The only successful challenge of Ozzie that I had seen was with the don, Greg, but in 2007, when Ozzie first showed signs of going into musth but then disappeared for several years, coming back only after Greg’s demise.

How has he navigated Smokey all this time? My guess is that he is carefully and painstakingly avoiding Smokey, just as Greg had in the past. And judging from Smokey’s ire the day after Ozzie’s dramatic showdown with Prince Charles in 2012 (watch the award-winning Smithsonian documentary, Elephant King to see the blow by blow), Ozzie would have reason for concern.

It was the closest temporal gap we’d seen between a visit from Ozzie and a visit from Smokey. Smokey retraced Ozzie’s trail of urine dribble, step by step, throughout the clearing, first the dramatic chase of Spencer, and then the dismissal of Prince Charles. Smokey seemed highly agitated as he pranced down Ozzie’s musthy trail. I couldn’t help wondering what it was exactly that Smokey had picked up on. Could he tell from Ozzie’s scent that something was amiss? That Ozzie had broken an unwritten gentlemanly code? Smokey had never seemed too bothered by the scent trail of other musth bulls such as Beckham and Mike.

The Pharaoh family came and went about half way through my night watch last night, holding little interest for Ozzie who had slipped back in after rattling his sabers at Mike a few hours back. He was heading out northwest as the Pharaohs headed northeast until something triggered Ozzie to make an about face and gap it south, redefining the landscape with his Nordic-track gait sliding across the expanse at an impressive pace. Somebody had gotten up under his crawl and I couldn’t tell who.

A moment later, Captain Kirk showed up on the southeastern cutline, and unfortunately for him, he was not going to be allowed to drink for as long as Ozzie felt like terrorizing him—which was quite some time.

Meanwhile, Ozzie engaged in a trunk wrestle with the young Rocky Balboa, as he kept an eye on Kirk who was desperate to get to the source of the spring but was psychologically pinned to the salty pan by Ozzie’s periodic stink eye. Any time Kirk took a step in the direction of clean water, Ozzie cracked one ear and then the other at him and that was enough to stop Kirk in his tracks.

The spar with Rocky seemed congenial enough, but not without Rocky always watching his back and side. When he sensed that Ozzie was following him out of the clearing, he stopped and waited for Ozzie to pass and then Rocky followed him instead. Apparently, Rocky had had enough experience with the fickle nature of testosterone to be on guard—don’t temp fate and show your backside to the unstoppable Ozzie when not absolutely necessary.

Caitlin at the beginning of night watch. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Caitlin at the beginning of night watch. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

I wondered how a confrontation would play out between Smokey and Ozzie as I watched elephants come and go throughout the night from the vantage of my tent, seven meters above the water, scribbling notes and recording vocalizations between young males as they left. I finally turned in at four a.m. with a hint of Ozzie’s musth scent still permeating the night air and still lingering in my nostrils the following morning at each passing gust.

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)

Comments

  1. Lorette
    NYC
    August 9, 2015, 1:47 pm

    Really interesting but do you think Ozzie is a bit of a bully or is he just trying despite his size to be respected?
    I love all elephants.

    • Caitlin O'Connell
      August 11, 2015, 5:00 pm

      Hello Lorette,

      Thanks for your comment. I do think that Ozzie is trying to gain the respect of adult bulls, but he is doing it in a very aggressive way that is not the norm for a bull his age. Gaining respect is one thing, targeted attacks on older competitors is quite another. This extremely aggressive behavior toward reproductive-aged bulls appears to serve to intimidate others and perhaps even suppress others from going into musth. I too love all elephants and marvel over Ozzie’s abilities!

  2. Tracey Takacs
    Huntsville Ontario Canada
    August 9, 2015, 7:30 am

    Love your article. It sounds fascinating. This would make a much better reality show than the dribble on tv – lol.

    I was wondering is Ozzie an orphan?? I have read about orphaned male elephants growing up without their Mothers and have been growing into unruly teenagers and bulls. I read that some of them are killing rhinos and going into musth earlier than normal because of their traumatized child hood.

    • Caitlin O'Connell
      August 11, 2015, 4:54 pm

      Hello Tracey,

      Sorry for the delayed response and thanks for your comments. I agree that Ozzie’s saga would make for great reality tv!

      I don’t believe that Ozzie is an orphan. I think that he falls along the extreme spectrum of musth bull age and behavior. It is very unusual for such a young bull to go into musth in a population that has many mature adult bulls and adult musth bulls (the unruly teens that you mention were reintroduced to a reserve in South Africa that did not have any adult bulls in the population to suppress them hormonally. Because of their behavior, adult bulls were later introduced and these young unruly teens fell out of musth simply by the mere presence of the older bulls). I think that his extreme behavior is a result of being a very young musth bull, and so far, we have not witnessed any adult musth or non-musth bull put him in his place despite many valiant attempts. Just at the end of this season, we did see one adult bull win a contest with Ozzie, so we are hopeful that it is not impossible to put this youngster in his place. Thanks again for checking in with your thoughts.