Many visitors to our reserves are very weary of elephants, and justifiably so. A bull elephant can stand 3m at the shoulder and weigh up to 6 tons with a cow standing 2,5m and weighing around 4 tons. In addition to their gigantic sizes they are extremely intelligent and strong and are not on the Big Five list of most dangerous animals for nothing. As a rule elephants are quite placid unless they feel threatened in any way or are in musth. Most charges are mock-charges usually performed by younger animals testing their strength however; never play chicken with any elephant irrespective of size! A bull elephant in musth is one animal to avoid totally as they are unpredictable and extremely dangerous.
So what exactly is musth and how does one know if a bull is in musth? In a nutshell musth is an elevated state of testosterone. In-order for a bull to be permitted to mate with a cow it must first reach this elevated state. Visually the bull will be secreting a liquid from their temporal glands situated on the sides of their foreheads, profuse dribbling of a strong smelling urine which humans can easily smell, that discolours the inside of its legs and penis and, because of the high testosterone levels, is extremely aggressive. During musth bulls are impulsively driven long distances from their normal areas to prevent them from mating with relatives. During their travels they emit an infrasonic musth call to attract any cows in oestrus and readily chase off any bull that they encounter along the way.
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Older bulls are able to suppress musth in younger bulls which readily give way to them. Similar sized bulls will fight which sometimes results in death. The victor will then mate with the cow in oestrus thereby transferring his more dominant genes. Cows in oestrus will only mate with bulls in musth.
Young bulls are only in musth for a few days to a few weeks while mature bulls can be in musth for months.
Megan Emmett, Sean Pattrick: Game Ranger in Your Backpack. Third Impression 2012, Briza Publications
Email Nigel at African Insight