After ten years of terrorizing Mushara’s male elephant population, nature has made a course correction with a certain young bull, Ozzie. Finally, Ozzie miscalculated and ended up in the same place at the same time as the magnificent, dominant Smokey—a moment I’d been waiting for for a long, long time.
For the past decade, Ozzie had always been one day ahead of Smokey’s schedule, spending a considerable amount of time planning his departure vector with his trunk on the ground, presumably assessing where his nemesis might be at any moment, and choosing the opposite direction for his next venue.
The days following Ozzie’s visits, Smokey would arrive, following the trail of Ozzie’s urine dribbling in a musth-filled display of outrage—as if cognizant of Ozzie’s defiance of an age-old gentleman’s agreement—that one not enter the state of musth until around the age of 25.
Given Smokey’s reaction to picking up Ozzie’s scent trail over the years, I had to admit, I was expecting a little more fanfare to this defining moment, when these two larger-than-life characters were in close proximity to one another.
Ozzie’s extremely violent behavior toward some of Mushara’s gentlest senior giants like Mike, Brendan and Abe made us onlookers want to see Ozzie put in his place.
But even the formidable Luke, Prince Charles and Greg failed in their efforts to suppress the unstoppable Ozzie. Smokey seemed like the only possible candidate to unseat the young bull who defied nature and maintained musth for a decade despite the numerous challenges we witnessed every season.
But the moment came and went when these two behemoths—one in body and one in spirit—took stock of each other in the flesh. To the untrained eye, it looked like nothing of import transpired. Of course, the older and more dominant musth bull, Smokey, towered over Ozzie and should have been intimidating, and yet there seemed to be no contest, much less all-out combat. But to the trained eye, it was clear that Ozzie was indeed intimidated after his first show of defiance. Moments after holding his ears out, Ozzie held his ears to his side and relaxed his posture.
Then Ozzie positioned his backside to allow Smokey to inspect his penis in submission.
After Smokey inspected him, he slunk away and kept his distance, as if trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible. This was certainly not Ozzie’s default confrontational behavior in the presence of any other older bull, musth or otherwise.
Instead of triggering an elaborate musth display from Smokey, it was as if Smokey knew that all that fanfare wasn’t necessary in this situation. A simple raised head and stern look from this majestic bull was all it took to start a process that two days later resulted in Ozzie having come out of musth. As one of my volunteers said, “it wasn’t worth spilling his scotch over.”
Two days went by and our thoughts shifted to other elephant dynamics, until Ozzie reappeared, no longer in musth. I barely realized what had happened, having not immediately recognized Ozzie without his previous outsized swagger and extreme aggression toward the other bulls that were drinking at the pan when he’d arrived. He slipped in with another young bull, Kelly. His temporal glands were no longer swollen or streaming, nor was he dribbling urine. The only remnant of musth was a slight bit of temporal staining and the fact that his swagger hadn’t completely disappeared. Ozzie still managed to escort the older bulls Spencer and Tim from the waterhole, albeit in a much less intensive style than when he had been in musth.
A bull can drop out of musth very quickly if wounded, which we saw happen to Gary a few seasons prior, when a badly broken tusk exposed his tooth nerve that he’d pack with mud every time he came to the waterhole post-musth. Another way a bull can find himself out of musth sooner than intended is in the presence of an older bull, whereby proximity serves to suppress younger bulls from going into musth, whether the older bull is in musth or not. Sure enough, on this occasion, nature had finally been restored when Smokey caught up with Ozzie—despite taking ten years to manifest.
We were fortunate enough to collect a fecal sample after Ozzie left the waterhole, allowing us to compare his current testosterone levels to samples collected in previous seasons when he had been in full musth.
I saw Ozzie again one last time a few nights later. I was watching him through our low light binoculars as he slunk in for a drink without fanfare. But even sans musth, he still managed to precipitate Abe’s hurried departure. It was clear that he hadn’t completely lost his effect on the others.
In as much as I didn’t appreciate him terrorizing the adult male elephant population in the region, there was something poignant about his dethroning that saddened me. There was something compelling about the fact that Ozzie could defy nature. In an indirect way, his unexpected character and success despite all odds gave me hope that elephants in general could figure out a way to survive the current poaching crisis, each individual elephant in their own way. The two thoughts didn’t seem related necessarily, but that’s how it felt in the moment. An anomaly had come and gone, and in its passing, I was lamenting the loss and hoping for its return.
Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a world-renowned expert on elephants. Her twenty years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and 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. Her more recent books included Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts(Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015). 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 (utopiascientific.org) and her author site at caitlineoconnell.com. She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog elephantskinny.tumblr.com. Also follow her on twitter: Mushara
Author photo credit: Max Salomon