Eyeballing Elephant in Musth


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“You are guaranteed elephants at Hurulu Eco Park” the man at the hotel said. I had never heard of Hurulu. I knew both Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks near Habarana usually had large herds of Elephants. In fact, Minneriya is renowned for its “Elephant Gathering” when herds of over 200 elephants are seen in August and September. “No elephants there now” the man said again. This was February.

That afternoon we drove to Hurulu Eco Park in an Acme safari jeep wanting to see just elephants. Hundreds more seemed to have the same idea. There was an endless queue at the ticket office and we waited what seemed an eternity before we were let in to the park. Again, there was no tracker.

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We drove in convoy along muddy tracks for hours without seeing a thing, let alone elephants. Then, there was a Changeable Hawk Eagle on a distant tree and everybody got excited. Cameras clicked and jeep drivers grinned. There was another on a dead tree and a few jeeps went off-road against the law chasing a solitary peacock.

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Then it happened.

We could smell it before we saw it. The big, solitary bull elephant came out of the jungle on one side of the track and walked slowly towards us. The thick tar-like secretion from its temporal glands was trickling down side of its face to its mouth and its heady, musty smell was in the air.

Musth is a periodic condition in bull elephants characterised by a massive rise in blood testosterone levels accompanied by highly aggressive behavior. Even the most placid captive elephants become violent toward humans and other elephants during this period. Temporin – the secretion from the temporal glands, contains elevated levels of various highly odorous ketones and aldehydes. The elephant’s aggression may be caused by a reaction to the temporin, which naturally trickles down into  its  mouth and also acute pain in its eyes due to pressure from the swollen temporal glands. Musth is linked to sexual arousal and an urge to establish dominance. I remember once watching an elephant in musth at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage near Kandy. All its legs were chained and secured but it kept swaying from side to side and drove its tusks in to the ground. Its handlers kept well away.

The elephant stopped at the edge of the track and slowly turned towards the nearest jeep.  Its tiny eyes did not blink but I could see the terror in the eyes of one of the girls in the jeep. Everybody froze. After a tense moment or two which seemed to last for ever, the elephant crossed the track and walked slowly in to the bush. The girl in the jeep mouthed “Vow!”

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Elephant with obvious temporal gland secretions

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We didn’t see anything else in the Eco Park that day – not even a deer. For me the close encounter with an elephant in musth was more than enough.

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