While we here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park wait for Swazi’s second calf to arrive, let’s focus on Vus’musi (Musi). He is 8½ years old now and is a growing subadult, weighing around 5,600 pounds (2,540 kilograms). With his #1 play pal, Lungile, now over at the Reid Park Zoo in Arizona, Musi spends most of his playtime with adult male Msholo. Lately, Musi’s been trying to usurp adult female Umngani’s ranking over him, and when he’s with his mom, Ndlula, he pretty much has the upper hand. When his mom is separated out, he cautiously tests his hierarchy status without her. Remember, these are wild animals with normal, wild-animal behavior.
For more than eight years, Umngani has been able to displace Musi at will when he’s been away from his mom; but Musi isn’t little anymore, and he’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Umngani has a history of always backing down when push comes to shove (with Mabu, Ndlula, Msholo, and now Musi somewhat). We know she’s the main protector of her clan (children Khosi, Ingadze, and Neepo), as well as of youngsters Kami and Emanti, so we’d like to see her not lose her rank to Musi, but the inevitability of it all is unfolding before everyone’s eyes.
Managing an ever-changing herd of African elephants is a tough and educating challenge. There are not many institutions that have this many elephants—calves, adult females, and an adult bull—hanging out together every day. We use our ability to separate them into whatever social set up we want to lessen aggression toward each other while still trying to allow our entire herd being together most of the time. We’ve separated Ndlula and her younger son, Luty, out overnight once so far, and it got us the desired effect: Musi wasn’t assertive toward Umngani for a couple of days. These animal-management decisions are well thought out, mostly dependent on what we observe daily with their behavior. It’s still only delaying the inevitable of Musi outranking Umngani someday.
There’s a lot more involved with what we do socially with the elephants, too much to write down here. Just know we also don’t want anything to go as far as an injury, but we are talking elephants here. We pretty much let them work out their own hierarchy, their own breeding, and their own raising of their families. We could always place them in the safest scenarios to have the least chance of any elephant being aggressed upon, but that would mean having every elephant separated in a different yard with just a mom and her youngest calf together. Not much of a herd, right?
Musi’s not at breeding age, but he’s right at the age where he may have been kicked out of the herd if our elephants were in the wild under a true matriarchal society, so I’d like to think he’s at an awkward age where he’s testing everything socially. Think teenager. Eventually, we might have to place him with Msholo to start our first bachelor herd, which will be something new for us as well. Just think what fun we’ll have in six years when all the boys will be around Musi’s age now!
Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Swazi Update: Baby Due?