Mating Pandemonium – Shermin de Silva


Shermin de Silva, Postdoctoral Researcher

Date Published

Male elephants continue to grow throughout their lives, getting bulkier and broader. Older males enjoy a greater competitive advantage and higher reproductive success. Many have a characteristic time of year when they are seeking mates, and as they get older they increasingly advertise their state with strong-smelling chemical signals in their urine and temporal secretions in a condition termed ‘musth’. Younger bulls, who don’t appear to be signaling consistently or at all, may also try their chances when a receptive female is available. But they are prone to being chased off by the bigger, more dominant males.

Mating in African savannah elephants seems to be quite the affair, with the entire family joining in the excitement. This behavior is something I had not often witnessed – indeed, though we had seen many matings among the Asian elephants, such a level of family involvement seems quite rare, if it occurs at all.

These days there seem to be quite a few females in oestrus. One day we came upon the large aggregation (described in the blog post ‘A wall of elephants’) along the river bank, among the doum palms. They were milling around and there were several males about. Among them were Leakey, the venerable old bull with long asymmetric tusks, and Henrik, a few decades his junior. We noticed that they were interested in Nicky, from The Artists family. She was playing coy, as females always do, but was never far from Leakey, who occasionally chased off Henrik. After running around in circles for a while, Nicky finally paused for a rest beneath a tree beside Leakey.

Shifra and Jerenimo pointed out that one of his tusks seemed to be oozing some white substance – perhaps he had pushed it into something and damaged it. They thought it looked pushed back even farther than normal. He appeared characteristically calm despite this. In fact I was quite surprised at how close he let Henrik, going so far as to turn his back on his rival. While Leakey was exhibiting signs of musth, Henrik wasn’t, but it was clear he had Nicky in his sights.

Eventually Nicky recovered her energy and shot out from beneath the tree all of a sudden with her young calf in tow. Leakey was rather slow to pursue, lumbering behind ponderously. A few of the other Artists also followed. Seizing his chance, Henrik made an attempt at mounting Nicky, who pranced about. Her calf darted out of the way anxiously.

Another female in the Artists family, Flaubert, was following this all very closely and kept pace with Nicky, rumbling with excitement. At this brazen provocation right beneath his nose Leakey finally charged in to poke the younger bull again.

Nicky ran off with a long bellow.

Leakey caught up in slow motion.

For many many many long minutes they stood side by side, with Leakey resting his head and tusks against her back, pushing gently now and then.

Good grief! I thought to myself. Come on now Leakey, make your move!

But Leakey would not be rushed. At last, apparently after much reflection, he put his trunk over her back…then his chin went over…and finally he managed to get his entire towering weight on two legs and mount. Nicky shook her head, lifted her trunk and flapped her ears, reversing into him. The multi-ton bull had to step back awkwardly to keep from falling over until she’d backed him into a bush and could go no farther.

Meanwhile the rest of the entourage, including Flaubert and calves gathered, around vocalizing for all their worth. Flaubert was beside herself, flapping her ears, rumbling and defecating profusely. As Leakey dismounted they huddled about Nicky, still broadcasting.

What amused me most was that the message seemed to get passed on – now trumpets were coming from here and there, even across the river, as though the elephant grapevine were ablaze with this latest news. “Did you hear, did you hear? Score one more for the species! Woo hoo!” they all seemed to declare.

And that was my first experience of mating pandemonium.

Leakey mating with Nicky