de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Clash of the Titans. LMD. August 2002. Page 144. Volume 09, Issue 01. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan finds himself in an uncomfortable situation-plum between two feuding bull elephants.

Birder & Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne finds himself between two feuding Bull Elephants

A plume of dust, shot explosively into the air. The dust particles were as fine as powder and virtually invisible to the naked eye. The morning light reflected and refracted through the minute particles of silica, illuminating them in a golden glow. Big Bull, was enveloped in a golden sheen of armor, like a gladiator. Behind us, Small Bull tore up a Katupila Bush, the target of his emotions, a mix of fear, aggression and sexual excitement. A breeze whipped up and swept away the golden shield. The Andara and Ranawara bushes quivered in the gusting breeze as if they were trembling in the presence of the feuding giants.

Big Bull approached my parked vehicle ominously, sizing us up, a small beady eye filled with aggression lost in a hulking body. Its ears beat an audible rhythm, as it fanned them in stiff beats. The large ears are an elephants air conditioning system, keeping it cool by circulating blood through a thin sectioned, large surface area. The flapping ears were now serving another purpose. It was a part of what zoologists call ‘exaggerated behaviour’. It was part of the visual posturing to fend off a younger challenger. Small Bull circled behind my Montero and began to square up to Big Bull. They both drew up, either side of the vehicle. Sanjeeva Weerasinghe, my tracker, did not seem too perturbed. But, all of a sudden, I felt very vulnerable. Close up, even Small Bull looked like he would have the strength and intent to fling our vehicle on its side, in one irksome blow.

Like a snail slides into its shell in the face of danger, I withdrew my head and camera inside the vehicle as the feuding bulls gathered around us. Being so close to the action had not been a part of the plan. We had encountered Big Bull on our way to Gonagala, a lake inside Yala National Park, where I had hoped to do some sound recording of the dry zone dawn chorus. Big Bull was feeding on a grassy plain and approached us with trunk up in the air and ears cocked. Its body language spelt aggression. Musth was oozing from his temporal glands and one leg was covered in a sticky film of dust and urine. Its chemical signal to any females in the neighbourhood that it was ready to mate. We drove past him without seeking a confrontation. Returning, we met him again, but this time Sanjeeva spotted a challenger lurking in the thorn scrub. We had pulled up at a safe distance to observe the ensuing drama.

When Small Bull first emerged from the scrub, it had a long heavy penis dangling down, a signal of the tide of sexual hormones that was sweeping over him. As the bout continued, the penis had retracted his sexual ardor dampened by the fear and aggression gripping him intermittently. Small Bull dribbled some urine carefully on his legs and began to tear up some grass clumps. Big Bull followed with dribbling urine, and another spout of dust. The bulls were fighting, but avoiding physical contact which could be severly damaging. The battle was being waged using three senses. Chemical, visual posturing and infra sound. Only the last I could not hear. But the chemical warfare pervaded the air like a damp smelly blanket.

The White-rumped Shama had stopped singing. The forest had gone quiet, as if in fear of the feuding bulls. Big Bull eventually plucked up the courage and directly marched towards the younger challenger. Small Bull lost his nerve and retreated, and slipped away into the thorn scrub. Big Bull tossed a contemptuous look in our direction and strode off across the small grass plain and melted into the forest. A battle of nerves had been waged and won, without physical contact. Small Bull will grow with each year. When they next clash, it may be bloodier.

The writer manages a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.