Male elephant relationships are dynamic, diverse and complex. Their relationships with mother and allomothers, and later with peers, rivals and mates are influenced by personality. During the state of musth males exhibit great physical vigour and enormous sexual and aggressive energy, compelling them to listen, smell, mark, walk, interact and search over vast areas for receptive females and rival males.
We deprive captive male elephants of normal, healthy socio-sexual development when we deny them access to a diversity of social partners, hold them in isolation and restrict their movement and activity to small enclosures. Our care of captive elephants must recognize the importance of social relationships for males in all stages of life. It must account for their enormous drive by providing them with space and, the possibility for appropriate interactions.
- A male’s social life is structured by age, by preferences for residence areas, by individual friendships and by sexual state and can be divided into distinct periods. Individuals face specific social challenges within each of them.
- The first period, that of dependence on the mother and allomothers, is an experience shared with female peers, although even in the first two years of life their mothers and others treat infant males differently.
- The juvenile stage marks the beginning of socio-sexual differentiation, and male interactions focus on developing relationships with males of a similar age. The level of exploration, play, associations and physical maturation differentiate young males from female peers and set the scene for the remainder of their lives.
- The age of departure from the family varies depending on habitat, group size and structure, and the local population context. Typically, males go independent between eight and 18 years old. At this stage males must acquire a fresh set of behavioral skills to adapt to the society of males, where body size, fluctuating sexual state, relatedness and shared history determine interactions and relationships. At this time, males encounter new sets of risks and engage in behaviour that may increase mortality or morbidity risks.
- The transition from the one society to the other occurs gradually, lasting for as long as several years, during which time males interact increasingly with males of similar age from other families, gathering information crucial to their longevity and to their reproductive success.
- Young males establish familiar feeding or “bull” areas, assess their power against peers in both relatively friendly and more aggressively competitive interactions, and associate with females in order to initiate and gain experience in sexual activity.
- Between the ages of 15 and 34 years, males enter an annual musth phase of highly competitive interactions with other males and sexual interest in females. Musth is characterised by heightened sexual and aggressive activity, distinct posture, swollen and secreting temporal glands, the dribbling of strong smelling urine, and very low frequency vocalizations.
- Older males are larger and are generally dominant to younger males, supplanting them in bull-only groups over access to food and threatening them in mixed groups over access to estrous females. Musth, however, has an overriding affect on male dominance rank; with few exceptions a musth male, whether large or small, ranks above all non-musth males.
- During musth, male elephants experience dramatic surges of circulating testosterone, interact aggressively with other large adult males, particularly those in musth, and spend the majority of their time searching for, attempting to gain access to, or guarding estrous females.
- Musth has a dramatic affect on a male’s activities; the amount of time spent in interacting and walking increases dramatically as males roam from group to group, using olfactory and acoustic cues to search for receptive females and to challenge rival males. The amount of time spent feeding and resting declines in equal measure.
- The duration of musth is age-related, increasing from days to weeks to months and peaking at age 50. The time of year a male enters musth, how he remains in musth, and the number of females in estrus during that time, all contribute to his annual reproductive success or failure.
- Between alternating musth and non-musth phases, the social dynamics of males shift from searching for females and competing with other males, to occupying specific feeding and social bull areas. Within bull areas, some large males have strong affiliations and associations with other males, which appear to be manifestations of friendships. Some males are generally gregarious, while others are highly selective; some are sociable, others less so; male elephants are animals with distinctive traits and personalities.