Elephants are usually relatively calm creatures, unless unduly provoked by gawking humans, opportunistic predators or feisty peers. On occasion, though, they may come to blows in dramatic battles for dominance that are not often seen, let alone captured on camera. Kenyan safari guide Tom Sairowua recently witnessed a titanic skirmish between two elephant bulls in the Maasai Mara National Reserve and was lucky enough to film a thrilling minute of the action.


The clip was captured in early March while Sairowua was taking visitors on a game drive in the famed Kenyan park. Having spotted the bulls sizing each other up, the experienced guide parked his game-viewing vehicle near a small wooded area and began filming as the elephants approached. With trunk raised, the aggressor made a determined push forward. His rival retreated and, as though part of a synchronised dance, moved backwards at an identical pace to his assailant in preparation for the clash. There's a moment's pause. Then a lunge. Two enormous heads collided in a dusty thump. The clatter of tusks locking together echoed across the grassland as the giants jostled for dominance. It's an orchestrated wrestling match characterised by sporadic headbutting, trunk tangling and forceful shunting.

Although the challenger on the left appeared to have the upper hand in the short clip, the battle continued for an hour, Sairowua explained on Facebook, and it was the larger, older bull who eventually claimed victory. "The two were fighting to prove their dominance," Sairowua told The Daily Mail. "It was very impressive to see the power of these animals. The fight was so important as it dictates leadership as well as who will have easier access to females."

Elephant herds are usually made up of related females and their offspring led by a matriarch – typically the oldest in the group – who calls the shots about where to forage and when to hit the trail in search of greener pastures. Young males leave the herd when they reach their teenage years (12-15 years old), from which point on they are believed to lead mostly solitary lives, although research suggests bulls may sometimes form close-knit bonds with other males.

In Namibia's Etosha National Park, where seasonal droughts sometimes restrict access to water and food, bulls have been recorded forming small herds with a strict hierarchy governed by a dominant male. In wetter habitats, males may form a strong bond with just one other bull, an elephant "BFF" for companionship and security. 

Fights may break out when bulls enter a hormonal state called musth. During this time, males become fixated on searching for a mate and often engage in exaggerated displays of aggressiveness. Males in musth are imbued with heightened testosterone levels that supply them with ultra-strength and a somewhat manic disregard for anything aside from the task of mating. Even dominant bulls may be toppled by these sex-crazed brutes.

The victor of these clashes gains first dibs on the best quality food and water as well as easier access to females. In the case of hierarchal bachelor herds, the dominant male leads the subordinates and makes decisions about where and when to rest and move.

Although battles may sometimes end in severe injury or even death, this lengthy clash appeared to conclude without bloodshed with the loser eventually walking away in defeat.

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Top header image: Brittany H., Flickr