Musth – mostly misunderstood.

A full grown elephant bull in musth is often an awe-inspiring sight, as he muscles his testosterone-fueled way through the mating hierarchy. Musth is the Sanskrit word for intoxicated and is pronounced `moost’ but has been translated into English as `must’. It best describes the hormonal condition that all elephant bulls will experience annually, once they have reached adulthood. Younger bulls in their first musth are often described as unsure of their new found powers, as the testosterone charges through their systems, emboldening them and filling them with the confidence needed to challenge older males for the right to mate, hence the description `intoxicated with lust!’


It is reputed that a female elephant in oestrus will choose a musth bull over any other, as it is a fact that his testosterone levels will be at 60 times greater than his closest non-musth rival and this possibly reassures her that she is likely to be impregnated quickly, without repeated coverings. Bulls in musth display characteristic signals, the most prominent of which, is the seeping of temporin from the temporal gland situated behind the eye. This gland can weigh up to 3 kilograms in adult bulls and is the size of a adult man’s fist.


During the musth phase, this organs swells to almost double its size as it produces copious quantities of the odorous, protein-rich, oleaginous mixture that flows thickly down the elephant’s face, often erroneously called `elephant’s tears’. What is also very apparent during the musth is the `stench’ that accompanies the bull. Much of this sickly-sweet odour is emitted via the secretion of this temporin, but some is also from the constant dribble of urine that accompanies this condition, staining the opening of his penile sheath a pale green and plastering the insides of his back legs with the stench of testosterone-enriched urine.


Very often, a guides first indications to the presence of a musth-bull in the area, is the smell of him on the wind or a trail of odoriferous, dribbled urine on the ground. And guides would do well to heed these warnings, as most musth-bulls are very aggressive to all that they encounter. The swelling of the gland inside the elephant’s skull, is said to be responsible for the bull’s aggressive behaviour, as it exerts pressure on the eye socket, producing a pain much the equivalent of a severe toothache! Is it no wonder that they challenge any thing that moves, or doesn’t?

Shenton Safaris

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