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Elephants - the Bulls of Ingwelala

Ingwelala is a beautiful bushveld retreat situated in the middle of a vast wilderness. Together with the Timbavati Reserve, Klaserie Reserve and the Umbabat Reserve it comprises of 180,000 hectares.

Adjoining these reserves on the eastern boundary is the Kruger National Park, and together this wilderness comprises a staggering 1.2 million hectares -the world's largest big five conservancy. The wildlife, especially the elephants, roam this huge reserve. Ingwelala is tucked-in right in the middle of it, and is of strategic importance, as it serves as part of a bull retirement area of the Umbabat.

A bull-retirement area is a place bulls choose to visit, when they are not sexually active, or out of musth. They are often seen foraging and stripping bark in the wooded hills and valleys around us. Here, they are relaxed and form loose associations with other bulls, and sometimes aggregate in large numbers - sparring with and greeting old rivals.

When not sexually active they are seldom alone, but as their condition improves and their musth cycle approaches they abandon their companions and walk alone in a determined way, searching for oestrous cows. These bulls travel great distances, have little time to forage, are unsociable and react aggressively with other bulls as they move from breed-herd to breed-herd. Bulls only start to experience prolonged periods of musth at approximately 30 years of age, and these are the bulls that are allowed to mate with the cows.

When musth subsides, and their condition has deteriorated, they once again join up with other bulls and retire to their bull-area. A dominant bull may be able to hold musth for six months, while others two weeks or two days, each bull slotting-in at different times.

Young bulls, on the other hand, spend a part of the year with males, but interrupt this for visits to female groups. They also come into musth for brief periods, perhaps a day or two, but tend to drop out of musth quickly, especially if an older bull is present. Some scientists believe that older males prevent young bulls from coming into musth through sheer intimidation.

During the 4 years that I have been monitoring the elephants at Ingwelala no less than 450 different bulls were seen, and most of this work was done during casual game drives. There are probably many more elephants moving through our properties, that we are not able to identify. Our game drives have become an exciting adventure, especially when we recognise a bull - it is like meeting an old friend. Some of our local bulls, like Skew-Tooth, have been seen dozens of times and always during the same months of every year.

It is interesting to know that it takes young bulls up to 10 years to decide on a bull area, and once they have decided, they remain faithful to it for the rest of their lives. Some of the bulls come all the way from Skukuza, in the south of the Kruger National Park, to spend a few weeks with us before moving off our reserve into the Umbabat.

This research, if it is extended, will provide important information concerning the dispersal rates of bulls between the Umbabat, Timbavati and Klaserie reserves, and as our reserve is part of an open system, linked with Kruger National Park and other transfrontier reserves in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, movements would be able to be studied at the meta-population level. One would also know whether the Umbabat serves as a bull-retirement area for the adjacent Kruger National Park elephants.

What started as a hobby extended itself beyond our wildest dreams. The great attraction about a place like Ingwelala is not only the chance for photography, relaxation and recreation, but members are encouraged to observe different species and so add to the bank of knowledge of the APNR.

The possibilities are endless, the joy incomparable and the bush waiting . . .


By Cathy Greyling.