The elephant population has been in decline since the height of the ivory trade in the 1980s, and now, nearly three decades later, we’re witnessing the genetic and evolutionary effects that have manifested due to poaching and human violence against elephants.
More than ever before, elephants are being born in certain parts of Africa without tusks, and researchers are saying that this phenomenon is appearing decades after poaching and warfare ravaged Sub-Saharan Africa.
Tuskless Elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park
Gorongosa National Park is over 4,000 square kilometers of nature that is home to hundreds of different species of wildlife in the center of Mozambique. Dr. Joyce Poole is at the frontline of elephant conservation in Gorongosa National Park, and she’s been studying the rise of tusklessness within Gorongosa’s elephant population.
In 1976, Gorongosa National Park was home to 6,000 elephants. When civil war broke out in Mozambique a year later, the elephant population would drastically decline. During Mozambique’s civil war, thousands of elephants were killed as a result of warfare and poaching. The civil war occurred at the height of the ivory trade in the 1980s.
After nearly two decades of civil war, Gorongosa National Park recorded that, as of 1994, only 100 elephants resided in the park.
Though the elephant population in Gorongosa National Park has gained some stability under conservation efforts, there is a significant number of female elephants living in Gorongosa without tusks.
Poole, along with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, reports that half of older female elephants who survived Mozambique’s civil war lost their tusks. About 33% of their female offspring were born tuskless.
The Significance of Tusks
Tusks grow throughout an elephant’s life based on genetics passed down from an elephants parents. While there is a gene for tusklessness, it didn't effect a huge part of the elephant population until the poaching epidemic became what it is today.
The iconic tusks of our beloved elephant friends serve several purposes for the elephants and their ecosystem.
Elephants use their tusks to strip bark from trees for food, and they cut down trees and bushes with their tusks as they travel and graze. When they clear away trees and bushes and then trudge on through the land, more grasslands are created improving the quality of life for the rest of the ecosystem.
Elephants also dig holes in the ground for water and create salt licks, benefitting other animals in the process. Salt licks are sources of salts and minerals that all creatures - including humans - need. Access to these waterholes and salt licks is crucial to the survival of many species during the dryer months when food and water is scarce.
The Rise of Tuskless Genetics
Natural selection is responsible for the evolution of all animals. Over time, animals better equipped to survive end up breeding more, slowly but surely spreading their attributes through the species. This is how elephants have tusks in the first place.
Elephants with large tusks were more likely to breed thus limiting the spread of the genes that lead to tuskless offspring. With the growth of the ivory trade, this has changed. As less elephants are born with tusks, the gene for tusklessness has had more of a chance to enter the gene pool, resulting in more tuskless elephants.
While the rise of the tuskless elephants may prevent them from being targeted by poachers for their ivory, the entire population not having tusks could lead to complications for the species.
Helping Tuskless Elephants
Tusklessness significantly impacts an elephant’s survival and quality of life. Tusks play a huge role in how elephants reproduce, obtain food and water, and interact with their ecosystem. The gene for tusklessness is becoming more and more prevalent and it is likely that, if nothing is done, tuskless elephants may be the norm in the not so distant future.
The key to fixing this is simple. We must end the ivory trade. This is admittedly easier said than done.
Only through strategic anti-poaching initiatives will we be able to stop, not only the demand, but also the perpetuation of the ivory trade. In order for tusked elephants to stick around we can't just stop the poachers... We also need to educate the world about the horrors of the ivory trade and what it is doing to elephants and their ecosystems.