A video taken by tracker Eric of 2 young elephant bulls playing during a wildlife safari at Pondoro Game Lodge on the 22nd of June 2016. A lot of people often mistake such playful behavior as fighting, but real fights are seldom seen and only occur between mature elephant bulls in musth. Playing is an important developing phase in most mammals and it is no different with elephants. They not only learn important skills that might be life saving in adulthood, but also learn where they fit into the hierarchy of elephants found in their home range without the need for real combat.
This leads us to the condition called musth. It is an Urdu word meaning to be sexually intoxicated. Bull elephants will only go into full musth when reaching sexual maturity at around 35 years of age. The temporal glands become swollen and urine would be continuously leaking onto their hind legs. Their testosterone levels rise and they become more irritable. As mentioned before all bull elephants in an area will be ranked according to age, size and strength, but when a bull goes into musth he will leapfrog everybody and jump to the front of the queue becoming the highest ranking bull. Two bulls of similar rank will fight upon meeting in the bush when in musth and injuries sustained during such skirmishes can often be fatal. A younger bull in musth that comes across the scent trail of a larger bull in musth will immediately turn tail and stop his musth cycle. Musth seem to have developed as a mechanism to decrease serious injury and deaths in elephants as the highest ranking bulls would not go into musth at the same time. Each bull’s cycle would also repeat at the same time each year.
A bull would only go into musth when in peak physical condition and signals their intentions as they search for mating opportunities. The condition can last up to 3 or 4 months in accordance with their fitness levels.
I hope this information helps to add value to your experience the next time that you see elephant bulls playing.