The Passing of an Elephant Don

It’s been four years now since I’ve seen Greg, the don of the boys’ club and most the dominant elephant bull at Mushara waterhole in the northeast corner of Etosha National Park, Namibia. This morning, I decided that I needed to come to terms with how long it’s been and what that might mean, so I went out to retrace his steps to the waterhole from the northeast elephant path the last time I’d seen him.

It was early August, 2011 in the late afternoon, our last full day in camp. The students were in the bunker to get better IDs on some of the new young recruits. Greg arrived, as he always did, a granite boulder appearing on the horizon and rising up into the larger than life character that he was. A flock of cuilliers flew by, creating a mirage of birds in front of him as he sauntered down the path. I stood between the camp and the bunker watching his entrance. He had a particularly large contingent with him that had been building throughout the season, a baby boom causing a larger influx of quarter-sized bulls into the population than usual.

Behind Greg was his long conga line of associates including the majestic Abe, followed by Kevin, Keith, Dave, Willie, Tim, Congo Connor, a recent recruit, Pumba, the young Hardy Boy, Little Johnny, the new recruits Spock and Rocky, and lastly Beckham who most likely got his timing off as he normally came in on Greg’s off days. In moments like these, watching this long line of bulls approaching the water, head to tail, head to tail, forced one to ask the question, why. Why would all of these bulls follow each other like this? What was the social glue that held all these individuals together?

Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke the other. The interesting thing in that dynamic was the fact that both these characters had been bullies and had previously shown no interest in taking the next generation under their elephantine wing. But in the absence of Greg, they both changed their tune and had amassed an impressive following. But by 2013, both of these building strongholds had collapsed with barely a trace of the loyal following they had built for themselves.

By 2014 it was hard to imagine that such a tightknit social group of male elephants existed. Long gone were the days of Greg’s conga line amassing on the horizon and coming in to spend hours together and the social club that was Mushara.

And now, here we are in the last quarter of the 2015 season, and there is barely a trace of the don’s social fabric that he has so carefully stitched together and vigorously maintained. It was hard for even me to remember the way things were.

It particularly struck me a few nights ago, after watching the Smithsonian documentary, Elephant King, filmed in 2012 about the aftermath of Greg’s reign. I had wanted my volunteers to see male elephant social dynamics in an era that had a lot going on. After the film ended, I stayed up for some time staring at the Milky Way and reminding myself of how things had been and how much things had changed four years now after Greg’s disappearing act. This is what led to my desire to retrace his last steps and revisit memories of his reign—like the times when he’d reprimanded Kevin for bullying Abe, both formidable bulls in their own right—or the time that le let the young Osh suck on his tusk—or the time that he had his muscle, Frankie Fredericks, do his dirty work for him by putting the fiery young Ozzie in his place. In the end, Greg had to finish the job and successfully dismantled the steam engine that was Ozzie’s half-sized testosterone outburst. Greg has been the only adult bull that had succeeded in this feat and Ozzie had been terrorizing all ages and ranks of bulls at Mushara ever since.

But I also forced myself to revisit the heart-wrenching times, like the day Greg showed up in 2010 with a trunk wound so raw and fresh that he had to soak it in the pan for at least an hour every time he came in for a painful drink that took twice as long to accomplish since half of it spilled out the hole in his nasal passage. Keith would always be waiting for him at the edge of the clearing and when Greg finished his medicinal soak, Keith would come back to collect him and the two would rumble back and forth as they left, one and then the other, one and then the other until they disappeared into the tree line together. And then there was my anxiety in the beginning of 2011, when I thought we might be returning to a Mushara without its don—that in the intervening season, Greg might have succumbed to his wounds, only to arrive to a don as fit and on top of it as ever.

Greg spent much of the 2010 season soaking the wound in his trunk. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Greg spent much of the 2010 season soaking the wound in his trunk. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Is it just a matter of time before one of his loyal underlings takes up the torch and becomes the new aggregating device for the next chapter of the boys’ club, or had we witnessed a rarity of nature, a character driven society that had defined this group and then collapsed with its figure head? I hoped that wasn’t the case.

Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, is the author of the books Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts (Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty five years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and five popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. The Elephant Don comes out next spring along with her debut novel, Ivory Ghosts. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award. Caitlin's research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website ( and her author site at She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog Also follow her on twitter: Mushara Author photo credit: Max Salomon