What does the word “musth” mean?
An essential part of the problems of the keeping of elephant bulls is the so-called musth. Musth is a word of Persian origin and is translated in the languages of Northern India by “condition of poisoning”. The word musth is used to describe an abnormal behaviour or the behaviour of a drunk, whether human being or elephant.
What is musth?
The musth can be defined as a periodical change of the behaviour of elephant bulls, which can last from some weeks up to some months. This change has got hormonal reasons. In the musth period a bull produces 40 to 60 times more of testosterone (male sex hormone) than in the non-musth time. As far as I know, this phenomenon occurs with elephant bulls only – particularly with Asian elephant bulls.
How do elephant bulls change in musth?
The musth changes the character of an elephant bull in various ways:
Physical symptoms of the musth are:
- swollen temple or temporal glands
- swollen trunk base
- an oily liquid comes out of the temple glands, leaving a black trace across the cheeks to the corners of the mouth
- penetrating smell of sweat and urine
- permanent dripping of urine and hind legs, which are wet on the inside by urine drops
- no erection of the penis
- the foreskin of the penis becomes white-greenish
Mental symptoms of the musth are:
- Impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and repetitive, stereotyped behaviors such as “weaving.”
- aggressive outbursts when the bull feels disturbed
- does not tolerate any noise and sudden movements
- does in everyday contact hardly react to familiar commands of the keeper
- tries to attack even familiar elephants and humans
Of what significance is musth when looking after elephants?
These symptoms complicate the contact with the bull considerably.
It is also very discouraging for the elephant keeper to work with a withdrawn, extremely aggressive elephant, which disapproves everything and actually is out to kill him.
Why is musth dangerous?
The danger of the musth for the elephant keeper is that the bull usually at first doesn’t have any outer physical musth symptoms. This is one of the main reasons, why the elephant bull has to be kept in a special bull stable, where there is no direct physical contact to the keeper. If the bull would be kept like a female elephant, sooner or later a bad accident would certainly happen.
Can the beginning of musth be predicted?
With Maxie, the elephant bull in the Zurich zoo, it is conspicuous that, about two months before it is obviously in the musth, the floor of its stable begins to foam when it is washed out.
Is musth a bulls’ rutting time?
The opinion of many zoo visitors that a musth bull would be in his rutting season, is absolutely wrong. Musth has nothing in common with rut. The elephant bulls don’t know a rutting season like deers or antelopes, because the oestrous cycle of the female elephants is not seasonally timed.
Does a bull in musth spend time with the elephant group?
For this reason it is also right not to bring the bull into contact with the female elephant during its musth. The risk that the musth bull could attack the cows because they annoy it for any reason is too big. The fact that the musth bull cannot be controlled by the elephant keepers and the very cramped conditions in a zoo would give the cows and the elephant calves no chance to get out of danger.
Why do elephant bulls go into musth?
Actually there is nothing known about the purpose of the musth. Every elephant researcher and every elephant keeper has got his own opinion. Usually the ideas are about the marking of territories, the expelling of other bulls from an area and about the possibility that also a physically weaker bull can reproduce itself this way. The musth seems to be a remnant from the elephants’ prehistoric time, which has endured up to the modern age.
Can musth be prevented?
As the musth is no disease or other pain, it cannot be prevented or treated. The musth is part of the natural behavior of the elephant. I don’t know if the bull feels well in the musth or if it doesn’t; if it has a headache when it presses its head against the iron bars or if it is simply furious and angry and wants to be left alone. Above all, it can’t stand sudden movements and noise. Moreover it is very likely that the skin of the hind legs causes pain to the elephant because it is irritated by the constant dripping of urine.
The musth period of the Zurich breeding bull “Maxie” is always in winter. This let the idea arise that the musth could be connected with light and thus with the exposure of the pituitary gland.
What significance does musth have for a working elephant?
As for working elephants, the musth means of course also a loss of earnings for the mahout. To minimize the musth period of the working bull and the loss of earnings, the musth bulls are treated drastically. Musth bulls are tied to two strong trees and set free again only when the must is over. During this time the bulls get very few food and drinking water. The idea that the musth is shorter when the bull has a hard time seems to be true. So the musth of working bulls lasts several days and not 5 to 7 months like for some zoo elephants. Our ethics and morals forbid us to treat zoo bulls in our world like working bulls in Asia.
What significance does musth have for the breeding of elephants?
The musth also impairs the breeding of elephants. Because a cow elephant has only 3 to 4 times a year an oestrous cycle and because it is conceptive only 3 to 4 days then, it will – together with the long musth periods – continue to be difficult to breed elephants successfully.
7 thoughts on “Musth of the elephant bulls”
I was recently in a elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka and I noticed that during the musth the elephants are actually chained to a tree to prevent fights or even bigger problems.
How is this challenging time addressed by the western world? Do they put them in cages? How elephants in Africa are treated? What do you personally think it is the best way?
We reduce the amount of feed. Less hay, absolutly no powerfood like bread, very little vegetables and fruits.
No provocation, no noise. A very boring time.
Have a look to: //en.upali.ch/bulls-and-bulls-managements/
I read in Sukumar The Evolutionary Elephant…. 2003 that bulls might have areas in their heads that swell during musth. The pain might cause the aggression and bulls sometimes dig their tusks into the ground thus alleviating the pain. It must be a terrible experience. Also, that musth can be brought on through stress. Why is your method of feeding less during musth is preferable? It seems logical. We don’t know much about musth, do we?
Thank you for your interest. To put it immediately, the Musth of the bull elephant can not be explained definitely. One can only puzzle over the origin and the purpose.
Our experience with the Musth at the bull elephant Maxie may not be transferable to all other bull elephants.
When we gave Maxie the same feed ration during the Musth, the Musth took a very long time, that is, up to 7 months. This especially during the winter. This may mean that the Musth may also be related to light intensity.
During a trip through India, the chief elephant keeper Ruedi Tanner spoke with different mahouts. The general statement was, the worse the bull goes, the faster the Musth passes. For this reason, working bulls in the Musth are tied very short to Asia, often beaten and malnourished.
We did not want to beat our bull Maxie and tie him up! But we were responsible for giving him significantly less and worse food. Only a little hay and a little straw. No concentrated feed, no bread, no fruits and vegetables. But as much water as he wanted to drink.
Through this measure, we were able to reduce the duration of the Musth from about half a year to about 2 to 3 months.
I hope the answer helps you to understand the Musth and their problems.
With kind regards
What do you mean by “autistic behaviour”?
By the term “autistic behavior” I mean:
Impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and repetitive, stereotyped behaviors such as “weaving.”