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At the temples, between the eyes and the ears, bull elephants have glands whose function in the rhythm of life has not yet been fully explained. Once a year, they secrete a dark, oily substance which smells of musk. The glands are inflamed, the temples swollen, and the animal's temperament and behavior undergo a remarkable change; the bull is 'in musth,' as it is called. This mysterious condition may fade away again after a few days, though it can last longer. The animals are nervy, excitable, and unpredictable.

Once a year, the glands situated between the eyes and the ears exude an oily secretion which smells of musk.

Musth appears in bull elephants about three years after they reach sexual maturity, which happens between the eighth and fifteenth year of life. The intensity of secretion increases gradually until the fourth decade of the animal's life, after which it declines again. Musth can occur, to a less marked degree, in African female elephants (but not Asian ones) though flow from the glands is usually absent. Zoologists think that the scent of the secretion helps to keep the herd together, rather than indicating readiness for mating, although the process is clearly of sexual origin.

The function of these glands is still unexplained. It has an unclarified place in the reproductive cycle. A scientific study of musth behavior on Sri Lanka revealed the following stages: in the early phase, signalled by a swelling of the temporal glands, bulls showed hypersexuality, with erections during breaks in work; the flow of the secretion had a sudden onset and was accompanied by ar~pid rise in testosterone level, indicating increased virility. There followed a period of dribbling urine, the penis remaining in the foreskin.

At the height of musth., mating is not possible. Most elephants that have fathered young in zoos have been too young to come into musth, so it is not taken as an indicator of fertility in bulls.

Musth occurs only in strong, well-nourished animals, and Indians take the absence of musth to be a sign of poor health. Rest and a special diet of vegetation are arranged for the affected individual.

It is known from observation that bulls in the wild come into musth much later than those in captivity. The American zoologist Joyce Poole stated as a result of long-term observation of elephants in Amboseli, the small National Park by Mount Kilimanjaro, that no bull under thirty years of age had played any reproductive role; cows 'in heat' in the wild will normally not accept young bulls, whereas in the zoo, even 12-15 year-old bulls have fathered offspring.

In the wild, discoveries about the sexual rhythm of bulls in musth are very difficult to make. Observations by zoologists and rangers show that on the African savannah cows in heat follow a bull in musth, the scent of whose secretions, along with its changed behavior and particularly deep vocabulary of sounds signal strength and protection. Bulls in musth dominate the herd and are especially aggressive in fighting off rivals. Mating often takes place after the state of musth has waned. It has also been observed that musth males rub their secretion onto trees as scent markers, to signal their claim to dominance.

In the confines and emotional stress of captivity, bulls in musth can be particularly excitable and unpredictable, forgetting their training, and serious attacks can occur. When the signs of secretion begin to appear, bulls are isolated and usually chained, as a precaution.

The elephant's reproductive organs show clear differences from those of other land mammals. The vaginal opening of the female is located at the rear of the belly, as it is in sea cows, which are related to elephants, and other sea mammals. The clitoris is highly developed, up to 16in long, and can be stiffened like a penis, which can easily lead to mistakes in determining the animal's sex. The testicles of the bull are located deep inside the abdominal cavity, not externally in a bag of skin. The slightly curving, S-shaped penis is unusually long, to match the anatomy of the female.

Young bulls become sexually mature between the eighth and fifteenth year of life, cow elephants between their sixth and eighth, later if poorly nourished. A mature egg is "released every three weeks, but owing to hormonal processes the cow is in season only four times a year for about 3-5 days each time. Gestation lasts 20-22 months, and the baby, weighing some 220 pounds at birth, is suckled for about two years.

Mating is a complicated procedure. It lasts only about 10-15 seconds, but is repeated a number of times.

Mating is a complicated procedure. It lasts only about 10-15 seconds, but is repeated a number of times.


Elephants do not go about mating pell-mell with brutish, wild abandon. Their courtship is one of affectionate companionship with its joys and games; what we might think of as a romantic engagement leading up to marriage. Asian elephants in particular seem to love with a special depth of affection.

Bull and cow elephants begin to form individual attachments before the cow comes into season, which usually happens for Asian elephants between December and February. They appear inseparable, and stand a little apart from the herd. During the pauses between times of walking and grazing, they lose themselves in loving playfulness, stroking each other with their trunks, giving each other a teasing nudge, or entwining their trunks, head to head as if in a primeval kiss.

Bull elephants are considerate and tender lovers. Rivalries between competing bulls in the wild are normally settled forehead to forehead in a trial of strength, and the loser who is forced to retreat or bow his head quickly leaves the field. Ranking order in elephant herds is in any case established in an atmosphere of general harmony according to strength, temperament and leadership qualities. It is only occasionally that a, brutal struggle for dominance and even to the death occurs, caused for example by the arrival of a strange, equally strong bull in the herd, challenging as a rival suitor. That is when the mighty giants clash, pitting their many tons, their tusks and trunks against each other, their flailing legs turned to dangerous weapons. The female for whom they are competing usually awaits the outcome of the contest grazing unconcernedly nearby, whereupon she grants her favors to the victor. She seems to have no interest in which of the two bulls is finally victorious.

Females are in heat for three weeks, but are capable of conceiving for only 3-5 days of that time. As the hormones begin to course through her body, the cow elephant becomes an accomplished vamp among animals, purposefully alternating between the taunt of half-refusal and seductive enticement. The preliminaries can last some time, leading with extraordinary suddenness to mating.

The zoologist Cynthia Moss, who spent some years observing the elephant population in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, witnessed an elephant mating in the open. She described how the bull leant his chin on the rear of the cow, then heaved himself ont9 his hind legs and placed his front legs on her shoulders. His penis is some 4 feet long, and is equipped with muscles enabling him to direct it. It had already assumed an S-shape. He placed the tip of his penis into her vagina, and penetration happened deeply and in one swift moment. Cynthia Moss goes on to say that Odette {the cow elephant) held quite still, and that they saw no visible movement from her for the 45 seconds until he dismounted. The excitement all happened afterwards. They heard her utter deep, pulsating noises, and her family rushed up to see the mating spectacle. They made a great deal of noise screaming and trumpeting, rumbling and roaring. The report continues that the elephants stretched out their trunks towards Odette's mouth and her vulva, and towards the fluids on the ground. While they were doing this, Odette turned round and touched Patrick's {the bull elephant's) penis with her trunk.


The sexual act is repeated a few more times away from the herd; cow elephants continue to accept bulls for an extended period of time. It may not always be the same lover that the cow accepts; there is no life-long bond between elephant pairs, as happens between some other animals.



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