Preliminary results of the Pilanesberg Elephant Project

Article by: Rob Slotow1 and Gus van Dyk2

1 School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Natal, Durban.

2 North West Parks and Tourism Board, Pilanesberg National Park.

This information is provided proir to academic publication to facilitate communication of the results to interested parties. These data are preliminary. This information may not be used for academic purposes without permission.


Six bulls were introduced to Pilanesberg from Kruger Park in February and March 1998. The objective was to suppress the musth behaviour of the young "orphan" males in Pilanesberg.

There was a range of strategies adopted by the Kruger bulls. Lebombo, the youngest and smallest of the new bulls attached himself to the largest of the female groups and spent his time following the females around (map). He had probably only recently left his birth-group in Kruger, and did not behave like a fully independent bull.

Four of the introduced bulls spent a lot of time together. Thabo, Mavuso, Pilane, and Amarula (map) spent most of the early period together in the south-central part of the park. They were mostly not associated with any of the female herds.

Nkemele on the other hand, split off from all of the introduced bulls, and spent most of his time alone (map).

Some of the resident bulls, like Steroid (map), spent a lot of time with the introduced bulls, while others like Kimberley (map) spent almost no time with them. There was often a trail of four to six young bulls following along behind the larger bulls, and slotting into a dominance hierarchy below them (photo).

There were some fights between the introduced bulls and the resident bulls. There was also some fighting amongst the introduced bulls, and for a while after the introduction Amarula carried a hole in the rump from a tusking! However, no major damage was done. Most interestingly, there was a lot more fighting amongst the resident young Pilanesberg bulls that we had previously seen (photo). The presence of the older bulls was probably providing a structure and incentive for them to slot into a dominance hierarchy.

The main aim of the project was for the introduced bulls to suppress the musth of the resident Pilaneseberg bulls. At the time of the introduction, Bull #5 (LT) was in musth, and continued in musth until May 1998. This was a five month musth period, which is unusually long, even for much older bulls. LT is only about 26 years old (see article on musth for more information). The introduced bulls did not suppress the musth of LT. There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, the bulls were settling into a new area, and getting to know it. LT was with the female herds most of the time, and the Kruger males spent time away from the herds. They did not have many opportunities for interactions. LT was also the largest, and most dominant of the original Pilanesberg elephants.

From when LT came out of musth in May 1998, until September 1998, no bulls in the Park were in musth. The first bull to enter musth was Nkemele, the loner Kruger Bull. After this, there was a spat of musth periods, with five other elephants coming into, and dropping out of musth.

musth_graph.GIF (10552 bytes)

LT came into musth again for 6 weeks in February 1999. This was a lot shorted than the 5 month period he had been in musth in 1998!. Two other Pilanesberg orphans came into musth in 1999, one for one week, and the other for three weeks. 

Although the musth of the young Pilanesberg orphans has not been completely suppressed, there have been no extensive periods of musth.

Up to date, there have been no rhino deaths since the introduction of the Kruger elephants. On that note, the project has been a resounding success!

However, in the longer term, the success of the project will rest on the incorporation of newly independent bulls slotting into a hierarchy, and not entering musth at an early stage. The project will continue to monitor the behaviour of the elephants in Pilanesberg, thank to ongoing generous support from Amarula (Distiller's Corporation). Their support has expanded to include supporting our study of the introduced population of elephants at Makalali Private Game Reserve.

This ongoing project is part of the Amarula Elephant Research Programme, supervised by Dr. Rob Slotow at the University of Natal, Durban, and supported financially by the National Research Foundation, University of Natal, and Amarula (Distiller's Corporation).