At Ka’Ingo Private Game Reserve we are fortunate to regularly see elephants slowly amble across the abundance of plains scattered all over the reserve. A regular sighting is either that of lone bulls or bulls found in groups of two’s and three’s. The latter is usually a favourite as far as wildlife sightings go as the behaviour exhibited can be very entertaining and informative.
The grouping usually consists of younger bulls accompanied by an older bull. These elder statesmen are usually accompanied by his so called “askaris” as they are often termed deliberately following his lead. There is a clear display of deference and subservience by the younger bulls when in the presence of a more dominant older bull.
As soon as a young bull reaches sexual maturity he becomes a nuisance to the cows of the natal herd and is encouraged by not so subtle measures by the matriarchy to leave the herd. This can be a very traumatic and confusing experience for the young bull as he is quite abruptly torn away from all he has known his natural life; the comfort and safety of a social family group is no more, his hormones are creating rages and moods that he is unable to contain and he is ultimately left to his own devices in terms of finding proper nutrition and water.
When coming across these young pretenders during game drives they come across as cocky and belligerent towards vehicles and this is often experienced by the spectator as amusing. That sentiment can quickly turn into fear as these young bulls are very unpredictable and can easily go from warning behaviour into a full charge. Thus they need a stern mentor to guide them into maturity to eventually become a more acceptable suitor for the cows in a breeding herd and a socially tolerable individual for other elephants. If this mentorship does not take place these young males turn into maladjusted adults that are unpredictable, aggressive and downright dangerous and they can wreak havoc which was in fact experienced in many well known parks and reserves particularly in the 90’s. The only solution that remedied this situation was to release older mature bulls mainly from the Kruger National Park into those areas to subdue the younger bulls and their unruly behaviour was a thing of the past.
As male elephants only really go into full blown musth, a state of heightened testosterone in response to breeding readiness of the females, at the age of 25 or so this is not a quick lesson but a solid education of 10 years or more – A sort of protracted gentleman’s finishing school for elephants.