It’s an unlikely spot for an interlude of story telling. We’re hemmed in by elephants: surrounded on all sides. There are hundreds of them. All sizes. Some half coated in wet mud – like monstrous chocolate-coated raisins. Most are in herds, ranged in descending order like Russian dolls. Others are lone bulls weeping sticky tears of temporin, the elephantine version of testosterone. The latter are in musth, a state of sexual arousal. They’re volatile and dangerous. We’re in an open-sided safari vehicle on the famous plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve. And the matriarchal herds are on the move.
Along the banks of the river they move in single file – mothers, sisters, cousins in swaying stately procession. A vast pewter-grey cow leads the way down an impossibly narrow pathway beaten straw-yellow by countless hooves. She’s nodding her head as if pleased with her choice of route. A baby elephant frolics along in her wake, trunk raised, a picture of joy. Momentarily confused amid the stone-grey forest of legs, the baby stumbles and is gently nudged back into position.
In the distance, another herd approaches, their great ears outspread. They’re moving fast. Is this a pre-arranged gathering of the clans? To our rear more ghost-grey shadows gather. To the immediate right of the safari vehicle, close enough for us to hear the basso profundo rumble of their communication, yet another herd has gathered. On the hillside, another line of grey silhouettes edges its way down the scree. It’s slippery and they’re testing the ground. Huge round pancake feet delicately extended like vast, eight-ton, ballerinas.
‘One upon a time’, begins our driver guide, as if it’s perfectly normal to tell a story when we’re corralled by elephants, ‘the lion and the ostrich were friends. The lion had three cubs; the ostrich had three chicks.’ The guide twists around in his seat to check he has our full attention. He’s a Maasai, clad in a scarlet shuka cloak, his chest crisscrossed by strings of beads. He’s recounting one of the most famous Maasai legends of the wilderness. ‘All was well on the plains,’ he says, ‘until a great drought arrived, and then everyone began to starve.’ On the actual plains, a young bull elephant makes a sudden dash at a female. He is repelled with a trumpet of indignation. There’s a strangely pungent odour in the air: musth. Our guide continues, ‘the drought continued; and the animals starved.
Eventually the lion could stand it no longer. “We must eat our babies,” he said. The ostrich was horrified, “can’t we wait for the rains to arrive?” she said. “No,” said the lion, “we’ll starve to death. We must eat them now”. And with that, he ate his cubs’.
Back in reality, a vast old bull lumbers into view. One tusk, his ‘working tusk’ is much shorter than his non-working tusk. All elephants are either right- or left-tusked. The temporal gland above his eye is the size of a grapefruit and it’s oozing thick musth. He’s stiff-legged, doing what the scientists call ‘the musth walk.’ The message is clear, ‘I’m fit, I’m strong and I’m READY. The females eye him askance.
Unfazed by the possible entanglement of two creatures with the combined weight of a Centurion tank; one of which has his testosterone levels raised by 60 per cent, our guide continues with his tale. ‘But the ostrich did not eat her chicks,’ he says, ‘instead she hid them. “Have you eaten your babies?” said the lion when he came along. “Yes” lied the ostrich.’
The matriarchal herd is moving off now. The bull is out of luck. He lumbers away – still doing the ‘musth walk’.
‘When the drought was over,’ continues the guide, ‘the lion met the ostrich on the plains. Her three chicks were almost fully-grown. “You lied!” said the lion, very angry, ‘and now your chicks are mine.” The ostrich, terrified, ran to the elephant, then to the zebra, then to the giraffe. “Tell the lion he can’t have my chicks,” she pleaded. But nobody was willing to support her claim. Eventually the mongoose agreed to help. Climbing to the top of a termite mount, he surveyed the lion and his strange clutch of surrogate babies. “Fur belongs with fur, feathers with feathers,” he decreed, “those chicks are not yours”. And then, before the lion could pounce on him, he dived down one of the many holes that riddled the termite mound. The lion was furious. Hour after hour he waited by the hole for the mongoose to emerge. But the mongoose knew his termite mound well. And he had escaped from another hole. And that,’ finishes our guide swiveling back to the steering wheel and turning the ignition key, ‘is why you always find mongooses on top of termite mounds’.
The majority of the elephants have moved away now. The raw stench of musth is receding. Those that remain flap their ears as if in applause. Story time is over for today.
The Indian Musth Poem
It was sweet to hear of your victories and fame
and I came here desiring to see you.
I came with my big family, passing few mountains
where noble, young male elephants with coarse hair
and swaying walks have musth flowing from their
cheek glands and elephant mothers with calves
wave wild jasmine twigs,
chasing striped bees that swarm on the sweet musth.
– Kummatoor Kannanaar