The swagger and odour of a musth elephant

1st November 2020   •  By Rhodes Bezuidenhout

Safari guide Rhodes Bezuidenhout of Shangani Trails recounts a trip with clients to Kruger National Park when he witnesses the musth swagger of a bull elephant in musth.

What is musth swagger?

Musth swagger is the term used to describe how an elephant bull in musth will walk. He will walk with a swagger, authority and jauntiness with his head held high and ears usually held out.

For further information on elephant musth please see our definitive guide to the biological condition.

Elephant bull in musth walking down a dirt road in Kruger National Park
Elephant bull in musth. Photo: © Rhodes Bezuidenhout

Arriving in Kruger

Having comfortably and timeously completed the drive from Johannesburg, we quickly unpacked and settled into our cottage outside the Kruger National Park (KNP) Crocodile Bridge Gate.

My two guests from the USA were keen to have their first experience of the Kruger. We wasted no time in driving the short distance over the Crocodile River to the KNP Gate, completed formalities and set off into the Park for a short sunset drive.

Stock photo. Entropy1963, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

No sign of the big five

Clusters of giraffe, wildebeest and impala were seen but of anything remotely Big Five-ish there was no sign.

Wanting to make a look-out point called Hippo Pools on the Crocodile River, we drove the main tar road, stopping in at Gezantfombi Dam on the way. Here we saw a number of hippo enjoying a final snooze in the water before commencing their nightly forays onto land to graze.

The elephant is one of the Big Five. To find out the other four animals that make up the Big Five please check out our article: 25 astonishing facts about Africa’s Big 5

Common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
Stock photo of hippos grazing on grass

Good bird life at Gezantfombi Dam

I pointed out a grey heron, white-faced whistling ducks and a hamerkop fly-by (a reasonably large brown water bird with a head shaped like a hammer).

We were also lucky to get our first look at some juvenile vervet monkeys, the youngsters jousting with each other from branch to branch in a tree not far from the road.

Vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops)
Vervet monkeys with a baby. Photo from stock.

With time moving on, we took the dirt which would lead us to the Hippo Pools look-out but our progress was impaired somewhat by a large mature elephant bull emerging from a waterhole on our left.

He walked with a musth swagger

He was wet and muddy but from the way he was walking or rather his very distinct swagger, I suspected he was in musth, a condition in elephant bulls where rising high levels of testosterone result in an urge to mate and invariably increased levels of aggression.

A lone elephant bull in musth walks down a dirt road through the African bush
The elephant bull in musth swaggers down the dirt road in Kruger National Park. Photo: © Mary Haskin

He discharged pungent green liquid

As we slowly followed him down the road, keeping a respectful distance, I explained that as a result of the elevated levels of testosterone, a musth bull would excrete a pungent green liquid from his penis. This discharge would result in the bull’s back feet being seen to be very wet.

The bull finally moved off the road, picking up a game path heading north providing us with a good side on view just as a gust of wind wafted the bull’s musth smell into the vehicle.

Foul smelling odour of the musth elephant

The reaction from my two guests was immediate as their noses reacted to the foul odour suddenly wafting through the vehicle’s interior confirming my initial suspicions of his musth condition indicated from his swaggering gait.

Having no intentions of chasing after the bull for a better view, we left him to his own devices, windows down and fingers firmly clamped over noses while we headed to the Hippo Pools look-out.

Discover more

To find out more about musth in elephants check out our complete guide to musth which includes video, photos and frequently asked questions.

This article was written by Rhodes Bezuidenhout of Shangani Trails. To find out what a tailor made walking safari could be like drop Rhodes a line. His email contact details can be found on his blog profile.

You may also want to read about Rhodes’ exciting encounter on foot with a bull elephant in musth.