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Estimated to be born in1964, Polythene was a member of the so-called PA family. The family was first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants.
Initially part-time, after a few years committing all her time to elephants, Cynthia managed to observe and name the entire P family, which in 1976 consisted of 22 animals of which nine were adult females. This was by far the largest group in the elephant population in Amboseli, Kenya. The average family unit size at that time was only seven.
There were two young males that Cynthia couldn’t clearly identify – nor who their mothers were. These two were named Polythene and Paul. As all males Polythene grew up in the maternal family until puberty at 12 –15 years – then cows start chasing young males out of the unit. The young males will associate more with other bulls and venture around with them. There is a strict dominance hierarchy among the bulls in a given area, which is acquired and maintained by age, strength and the occurrence of ‘musth’.
Despite the initial researchers’ assumptions, bulls actually have a complex social organisation. They associate with cow-calf groups randomly and will move between groups in search of oestrus females. Once a bull has found a female he will “test” her urine or genitals, using his trunk tip to carry scent to the specialised gland (Jaboson’s organ) in the roof of his mouth. This testing gives him information on the hormonal state of the cow. The courtship lasts up to a few days, with the bull occasionally mating with the female and guarding her against solicitation of other bulls. Old bulls become relatively more solitary, but still associate with other bulls – and that’s currently Polythene’s fate.
Photo credit and text: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants, Kenya Wildlife Service