by Richard Coke
Sometimes, even after years of guiding, you see a sight so strange that you just can’t explain it.
I’m still puzzling over something I saw on my last safari.
We’d just turned our backs on a group of bull elephants when we heard a commotion. A young elephant bull was fighting a more senior member of the herd – an old elephant bull, who had lost condition and was no longer in his prime. None of this seemed terribly ominous. Male elephants do engage in serious fights, particularly when they’re in musth - an annual cycle of heightened testosterone levels and altered behaviour that bull elephants go through. However none of the bulls involved here were in musth.
The young bull managed to knock the older bull off his feet. Suddenly a third young male elephant rushed across and repeatedly gored the older elephant to death with his tusks. He did it very deliberately and very patiently. It took about half an hour.
Fights between elephants very seldom end in death. And this was definitely not an accident. Elephants are emotionally highly complex animals. They can live for 60 or 70 years. Unlike, say, lions, it’s not really in their nature to kill. It was an emotionally exhausting experience for all of us who witnessed it. I’ve been trying to figure out why it happened.
One thought is that it had something to do with rivalry and dominance and therefore, ultimately, competition for females. But who knows? The killer’s motive will remain a mystery.