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Elephant Don

The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse

Elephant Don

The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse

Meet Greg. He’s a stocky guy with an outsized swagger. He’s been the intimidating yet sociable don of his posse of friends—including Abe, Keith, Mike, Kevin, Torn Trunk, and Willie. But one arid summer the tide begins to shift and the third-ranking Kevin starts to get ambitious, seeking a higher position within this social club. But this is no ordinary tale of gangland betrayal—Greg and his entourage are bull elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia, where, for the last twenty-three years, Caitlin O’Connell has been a keen observer of their complicated friendships.

In Elephant Don, O’Connell, one of the leading experts on elephant communication and social behavior, offers a rare inside look at the social world of African male elephants. Elephant Don tracks Greg and his group of bulls as O’Connell tries to understand the vicissitudes of male friendship, power struggles, and play. A frequently heart-wrenching portrayal of commitment, loyalty, and affection between individuals yearning for companionship, it vividly captures an incredible repertoire of elephant behavior and communication.  Greg, O’Connell shows, is sometimes a tyrant and other times a benevolent dictator as he attempts to hold onto his position at the top. Though Elephant Don is Greg’s story, it is also the story of O’Connell and the challenges and triumphs of field research in environs more hospitable to lions and snakes than scientists.

Readers will be drawn into dramatic tales of an elephant society at once exotic and surprisingly familiar, as O’Connell’s decades of close research reveal extraordinary discoveries about a male society not wholly unlike our own. Surely we’ve all known a Greg or two, and through this book we may come to know them in a whole new light.

Read an excerpt from chapter one: "Kissing of the Ring".

256 pages | 44 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Biological Sciences: Behavioral Biology, Conservation, Ecology, Natural History


“In Elephant Don, O’Connell, one of the leading experts on elephant communication and social behavior, takes us inside the little-known world of African male elephants, a world that is steeped in ritual, where bonds are maintained by unexpected tenderness punctuated by violence. It is also the story of O’Connell and the challenges and triumphs of field research. And it comes at a critical time when the slaughter of these intelligent and long lived creatures is at an all time high. The more people learn about them, the more they are likely to help efforts to save them.”

Jane Goodall, founder, the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace

“Elephant bulls—those magnificent creatures now in the eyesight of hunters and poachers—were always portrayed as loners. O’Connell has changed this by showing their intensely social nature. Not only do bulls frequently associate, they have subtle ways of communicating status and to jockey for position. All of this is complicated by the ‘musth’ wild card characteristic of the species. A fascinating look into the politics of the largest land animal.”

Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist

Elephant Don is truly a winner in many different ways. The best way to learn about the magnificent animals with whom we share Earth—or with whom we are supposed to peacefully coexist— is to meet them up close and personal, by name, by social relationships, and by their daily and sometimes hourly ups and downs. By reading the autobiographies detailing the roller coaster of emotions of a pachyderm posse we experience their own and other's life's challenges, and we see them as the unique individuals they truly are. In this landmark book we also learn about the ups and downs of doing extremely difficult, highly rewarding, and incredibly important field research. There surely is no one better than O’Connell to tell the stories of the animals she knows so well, to see how what they actually do meshes with extant models and theories, and what it’s really like to conduct this sort of research with a team of incredibly dedicated researchers, all of whom also are unique individuals. I will share this book widely. It is that good.”

Marc Bekoff, author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals

“The jaunty title belies the scholarly weight of O'Connell’s study on social behavior in a group of African bull elephants in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. O’Connell, who also works on the role of vibration in mammal communication, offers a riveting account. We see the pachyderms dipping their trunks into the mouth of dominant bull Greg; battling or welcoming would-be members; and, when Greg disappears, standing tail to tail, facing out as if listening for some seismic clue. Full of vivid detail, such as waking up to the ‘demonic-sounding giggling’ of hyenas.”


“O'Connell not only delivers a fascinating glimpse into the complex social lives of these intelligent pachyderms but also highlights the gritty challenges faced by scientists who study them in their natural environment.”

Library Journal

“An outstanding book. . . . There are no substitutes for long-term field research on identified individuals and, as you read Dr. O’Connell’s book, you’ll feel like you’re right there with her, her incredible team of researchers, and these most interesting and amazing animals. Written for a broad audience, not only researchers, I hope Elephant Don enjoys a global audience. This book can really make a positive difference in the lives of these most amazing and majestic beings.”

Psychology Today

Elephant Don offers an insight into the changing world of male friendships and coalitions that go on in a bachelor herd and by the end of the book you feel as if you know the herd intimately. If you have any interest in elephants and their behavior you will enjoy this book and you will almost certainly gain a greater understanding of elephant society.”

Wildlife News

“The stories O’Connell has to tell—both about the elephants and about life in the field, with poisonous snakes and infrequent access to a shower—are certainly absorbing.”

Inside Higher Ed

“A highly engaging and at times deeply affecting personal memoir of her years monitoring elephant society.”

Huffington Post

“O’Connell’s longtime watching, astute observations, photographs, and down-to-earth but detail-filled prose bring fascinating tales and postulations regarding elephant society.”


“In her latest book, Elephant Don, just out this month, the gifted translator of all things elephant, provides a front row seat on a long-running soap opera, which has been cast with some very big stars.”

Vicki Croke | WBUR, "The Wild Life"

“This is a brilliant study of male elephant society away from the matriarchal herds. Based on 20 years of research in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, it revolves around ‘Greg,’ a charismatic bull whose complex web of relationships weaves together the lives of dozens of other males. . . . It’s fascinating stuff.”

BBC Wildlife

“O’Connell’s book represents an uncommon story, the kind that can only unfold over time, with the help of meticulous observation. . . . O’Connell is aware that in Greg, she witnessed an exceptional leader. Encountering such an animal in fieldwork is a rare gift. He will open the door to another world, divulging nature’s secrets, letting us see our world—and ourselves—through his eyes.”

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents

Kissing of the Ring
Journey to Mushara
The Head That Wears the Crown
Introduction to the Boys’ Club
Dung Diaries
Teenage Wasteland
Coalitions and a Fall from Grace
Male Bonding
The Domino Effect
Capo di Tutti Capi
Of Musth and Other Demons
The Emotional Elephant
The Don Back in the Driver’s Seat
Sniffing Out Your Relatives
Where Are the Boys in Gray?
A Case for Dishonest Signaling
The Don under Fire
Black Mamba in Camp
Baying at a Testosterone-Filled Moon
Relentless Wind
A Deposed Don
The Don Returns
Scramble for Power
The Royal Family
Wee Hours
The Politics of Family
A New Beginning
Captions for Chapter-Opening Photos


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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