Every summer, Caitlin O’Connell, author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, packs her bags and travels to northern Namibia to study a group of male elephants. What she witnesses as the males jockey for power and position around a water hole is both shocking and heart-warming: violent conflicts, tender scenes of affection. But, above all, the elephants show her the importance of family and ritual behavior.
Talking from her home in San Diego, she explains what a smelly T-shirt contest can teach us about elephants, why it is no easier being a teenage elephant than a human one, what she did when she discovered a deadly, black mamba snake behind a canvas wall at the camp, and why it is crucial for humans and elephants to learn to live together.
Your book is based on fieldwork in a place called Mushara, a little known part of Namibia. Put us on the ground.
Our field site is in Etosha National Park, Namibia. It’s a remote area of the park where there are very few water points. It’s great for us because the elephants have to congregate at this particular site and we don’t have traffic from tourism. We have a seven-meter observation tower, with viewing platforms and tents, where we set up camp for the month of July. That’s when elephants concentrate in the area, and we can see the soap opera unfold.
You use the term “Don” to describe one of the male elephants you study. Tell us about Greg—and why he is the capo dei capi?
The way male elephants interact with each other is very similar to a ritual society, like the Mafioso. A subordinate elephant will take its trunk, lift it up and place it in Greg’s mouth. That’s why I call him The Don. There’s this reverence around him, but also a brutality. He has figured out how to wield the carrot and stick to keep his constituency. I’ve seen very aggressive bulls that are not able to hold the kind of posse he does. They’re too aggressive and individuals aren’t interested in following them. But he solicits the subordinate individuals to follow him. It’s a fascinating, secret society.
How old is Greg? Describe him for us.
We estimate he’s in his mid-forties. He’s not the largest bull there, but dominance has more to do with character than physicality, although you have to be very fit to challenge other bulls. He doesn’t have the biggest tusks. In physical appearance he wouldn’t stand out as the most impressive bull at our field site. But your eye is drawn to him because of how he holds himself and how others view him. It’s like there’s a spotlight on him.
The male hierarchy is all about who gets the best water, right?
When one social animal has dominance over a resource, you assume that there’s dominance over others. At the water hole, it’s like the ritual lining up and kissing of the Mafioso ring.
There is one spot at the water hole that is the source of a spring. Elephants are very particular about their drinking water and they fight over access to the best water. So that spot is reserved for the Don. When he comes in, it’s like the parting of the waters. The other males step away so that he can have that spot without contest. Others jockeying for position will ask his permission to drink by putting their trunk in his. Individuals that are low ranking don’t even bother going to the best water. They go straight to the more salty water at the end of the pen. [Laughs]
It sounds like the struggle for hierarchy can be pretty violent among males.
Oh, yes! They know how to use those tusks. Even if they don’t have big tusks, they really clash. It doesn’t happen very often, and the clashes are mostly in relation to two musth males competing for a female. You can hear their heads clashing and the tusks clacking, and see how violently those tusks can jab. If you’re off center, you’re leaving your flank vulnerable to being stabbed by a huge tusk. So, they will square off like sumo wrestlers, and never turn their backs. If they do, they immediately run. It’s an amazing thing to watch.
You have used the term musth several times. What is it and how does it affect male elephant behavior?
Musth is an Indian word. One definition is "drunk." An elephant goes into a state of elevated testosterone, similar to rutting in deer or antelope. But elephants are unique in that they go into this state serially, not altogether, so there’s a turn-taking element when some elephants are in musth and others aren’t.
They have very specific behaviors that signal they are in musth. They dribble urine and have swollen temple glands which secrete a sticky fluid. They take their trunks and swing them across their face, smearing themselves with this smelly substance. They prance and wave their ears and curl their trunks. It’s quite a spectacle [Laughs].
It’s as though they are on stage and it’s their turn to mate with females. Other males will back down, except for those overlapping in their musth period. Then they will challenge each other. Something that’s very unconventional here is that Greg, the dominant bull of what I call ‘The Boys’ Club’ at Mashara, appears to be able to suppress others within his group from going into musth. We’ve never seen that before. So we’re hoping to shed some new light on musth.
Being a teenager is no easier for elephants than it is for humans, is it?
No [Laughs]. Like the teen male, elephants have a coming of age period, with testosterone spikes and oscillations. Older males try and put these youngsters in their place, so they’re constantly getting harassed. It’s a very emotional time. It’s like they’re getting their driver’s license. They want to be free from their family but they still want to come home at night [Laughs]. So there are two things pulling at these young bulls.
Once they do make that break with family, they are all alone, and have to find a new family that will accept then. Some of them band together and solicit support from older individuals. Not all older individuals are interested in adopting them. But some are, and Greg is one of the great ones. He will, literally, take them under his wing. He will take his head and put his ear over them and rub them.
You deploy a lot of human behavioral tests on your subjects. Tell us about the smelly T-shirt contest and how it relates to elephants.
[Laughs] It’s a very clever study that a group of Swedish scientists did to show that humans are just as subject to olfactory decisions as other species. They had different men exercise in T-shirts. Then they put those T-shirts in a box and had women at different stages of their ovulation cycle smell them to see which one they preferred. What they’re actually smelling is what’s called a major histocompatability complex. It’s a gene related to our immune system. It’s also connected to what would be called a pheromone: our individual perfume.
The theory is that women select smells that are not so foreign from herself, but yet not so familiar. The not so familiar part is to prevent any species from mating too close to their kin, like mating with your first cousin. A lot of different species have this to protect them from inbreeding, but also to protect them from mating too far outside their gene pool.
I was curious whether it applied to this group that Greg had formed with his male posse. So, we did the genetics on their fecal samples, and the results were surprising. It turned out that they were more related to each other than the individuals I tested from outside that group. This is something we’d also like to test on long-term memory with elephants in captivity, looking at recognition of a trainer or a mate that they haven’t been with for many years.
You are also surrounded by lions in the field. Is it as wonderful as it sounds?
Oh, it is so wonderful! I feel so lucky to be able to have this experience, being out there in the wild every season, reminded of my place in nature and the universe. Listening to lions roar every night—from a position of safety, of course [laughs]—is a real privilege. The night sounds are otherworldly, so is the night sky in Namibia. It’s so brilliant at night. It feels like you can reach out from the tower and touch the Southern Cross.
Your field station also has some serious dangers. Tell us about black mambas.
The black mamba has a formidable reputation for a reason. It’s an incredibly aggressive, poisonous snake. A friend of a friend had his arm out the window as he was driving in a Land Rover, and this mamba reared up on the side of the road and bit him on the elbow!
We had one in camp once. Everyone was in the tower watching elephants, my husband, Tim, and I were down by the door of the camp and he heard some rustling behind the canvas wall. He said, “Caitlin, I think I just heard a snake.” So we stepped over and there indeed was a snake sitting in the shade behind the canvas door! It was a younger one, with that distinctive dark olive color, small head and black, beady eyes. It’s called the black mamba because the inside of the mouth is black.
We looked at each other and thought: Oh my god, what are we going to do? Luckily, there were some two meter-long pieces of PVC for the electrical fencing. So Tim said, “Let’s take that, run a string through it and make a noose.” So we made two of these long nooses and erected some tables as shields. As we moved closer, we placed the two nooses on top of the mamba’s neck, and pulled!
Most of us assume that poaching is the greatest threat to elephants. But human-elephant conflict is also important. Just as no one wants a highway built near their house, NIMBYism plays a role here, doesn’t it?
I think there are three things at play for elephants. One is the urgent poaching crisis. Because I worked with farmers on elephant-human conflict mitigation, I’m also keenly aware of two other problems. One is habitat loss. If we make cornfields instead of elephant habitat, we’re going to say goodbye to the elephant. Third is elephant-human conflict. If elephants are trampling a subsistence farmer’s crops, eating their whole year’s worth of food in one night, you can’t blame them for not wanting them in their backyard. So, we have to help people mitigate conflict so that it’s easier for people to share space with elephants.
What do you love about working with elephants? And what can they teach us?
I love watching ritual behaviors between elephants, seeing how sensitive and caring they are about each other, like when two females kneel down and pull a baby out of the mud. Despite the fact that these animals have a trunk and look different from us, they show us how important ritual and family are. Even shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye is an important part of the ritual of interacting.
When you see elephants behaving terribly to each other, it’s also a reminder. Humans can treat each other terribly, too. But can’t we rise above that? We’re not so driven by our environment that we are competing for resources in the same way. It’s a reminder to look in the mirror —and try to be better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.