Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come.

At first he didn’t compete with them directly – the Kalthota tusker arrived in the park some time in January when it was flush from the rains, and left again before the grass turned yellow. Then came Raja, who only showed up during his musth, and dominated the dry season. Sumedha would arrive some time later in the year, barely overlapping with Raja and generally avoiding him if they happened to be in the park at the same time. Unlike Raja, who was perpetually riddled with gunshot wounds and other signs of crop raiding, Sumedha seemed to keep a low profile – he never had a scratch on him. And also unlike Raja, who took a great interest in us, Sumedha tended to ignore vehicles and people completely, as if they weren’t even there. Appearances aside, Sumedha seemed a mild personality.

Sumedha in a grainy still frame from video taken in 2006.

The Kalthota tusker stopped showing up in Udawalawe after some years, though he still roamed outside the park. As the years wore on, Sumedha grew bolder and seemed to be taking more risks as well. In 2008 he lost the tip of his tail to what might have been a burn, meaning he had tangled with people. His appearances in the park overlapped with Raja more and more. We started seeing the two of them more frequently within short intervals.

And then in 2009, Raja had his fateful encounter with a sharp object that nearly severed the tip of his trunk. Although such injuries don’t appear to be fatal, Raja seemed to lose his competitive edge over Sumedha. Maybe the cut prevented him from eating well enough to build his strength, or maybe it just injured his pride. For the first time, we saw the two tuskers fighting actively. Raja displayed fresh wounds which appeared to be from the other’s tusks! Raja’s dynasty had come to an end, he’d been dethroned. No doubt, he had sired many calves including more tuskers, over his lengthy tenure. But the reign of Sumedha was about to begin. We never learned what happened to Raja, but he never came back to Udawalawe following this ouster.

Sumedha, as I mentioned, had always been well-built. He tended to dominate over other tuskless bulls, as Raja had done. They never dared challenge him, and Sumedha was free to mingle with the ladies as he pleased. In 2011 we saw him consorting with Sandamali, who was an ETH release (read about her here). Her ETH friend [832] had had a tusker calf, who may have been Sumedha’s as well. But other tuskers did appear from time to time. First there was Ghost, a known crop raider that the Wildlife Department translocated into the park in 2011. Although Ghost stuck around for a few years breaking fences and raiding the sugarcane plantations, he seems to have eventually moved off. Then in 2016 another old injury-ridden tusker made himself known. This one, we came to learn, was likely the Hambegamuwa tusker.

This year, 2017, we saw Sumedha again in August. He was in characteristically good condition, and showing all the signs of musth. He had been seen by trackers and tourists in July as well. But something strange happened. His musth usually lasted a few months, and after that he’d be gone. In 2010 his musth had been some time in September. In each subsequent year, it moved up earlier and earlier until it now appeared to start in July. He had effectively taken over Raja’s spot!

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Joyce Poole’s studies on African elephants (e.g. here and here) were showing that the male reproductive period of musth was not necessarily a fixed state. Older, competitively superior males could intimidate younger males to the point that they suppressed expressing (or signaling) their musth condition. Was something like this going on in Udawalawe?

We were in for a bigger surprise. Sumedha stuck around far longer than he ever had before – August, September, October, November came and went, he was still in musth. He was last seen in early November, still showing the urine dribbling characteristic of musth, though the temporal glands on either side of his head were drying up and he had started to eat again and was likely coming out of it. That would make it a whopping 5-month long musth period! The longest we’ve ever recorded in Udawalawe. What was different about 2017?

Sameera offered a plausible theory. He has been working with the wildlife authorities and local communities long enough that he’s become a contact point for all elephant goings-on in the area. So he was among the first to find out that the Hambegamuwa tusker had died of his wounds back in August. By sheer coincidence, the Kalthota tusker had also met his end – he had a penchant for climbing high rocks and hillsides, and given his venerable old age, it appeared he had fallen accidentally to his death. Although these two bulls didn’t contest Raja inside the park, perhaps their deaths had somehow left Sumedha entirely unchallenged. Could his epic long musth be a response? Will it happen again next year? We’ll just have to wait and see!

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