What are the three things elephants are known for above anything else? Most people would mention their big floppy ears, their gigantic snout and their tusks. However, maybe in the not too distant future elephant tusks may become a biological relic.
According to a new report in Nautilus, an increasing number of female elephants are being born tuskless. In fact, nearly a third of female elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique are missing their tusks. Researchers correlate this evolutionary change to poaching.
We can thank poachers for messing with the elephant’s gene pool. This comes down to artificial selection weeding out particular traits. Because poachers target elephants with impressive tusks, those genes can no longer be passed down to subsequent generations.
Some females are naturally tuskless, while most African male elephants have tusks. About two to six percent of female elephants never develop tusks. However, that number is increasing at an alarming rate.
This change is primarily affecting the female elephants, as naturally tuskless males are unlikely to mate and pass on their genes, said Dr. Joyce Poole, an ethologist and founder of Elephant Voices.
“Elephants carry a sex-linked gene for tusklessness, so in most populations there are always some tuskless elephants,” said Poole. “Because males require tusks for fighting, tusklessness has been selected against in males and very few males are tuskless. For African elephants, tuskless males have a much harder time breeding and do not pass on their genes as often as tusked males.”
The percentage of tuskless females at Gorongosa National Park is much more than two percent. About 33 percent of the females are born without tusks at the park. This is largely in part due to the poaching that occurred during Mozambique’s civil war from 1977 to 1992.
This means that the elephants gene pool was altered. Their population, “ends up with a higher proportion of tuskless animals who then reproduce and tend to produce tuskless offspring,” said Dr. Poole.
This is something that is getting increasingly more common as time goes on. In 1930 in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, only one percent of females were without tusks. In 1998, the park showed that 15 percent of its females were tuskless.
An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks. That is almost 100 elephants a day. In 1979 there were about 1.3 million elephants, ten years later the population decreased to 600,000.
Some conservationists have taken some pretty controversial and drastic measures in the past to protect elephants from poachers. They have even gone as far as tranquilizing some of their bull elephants and removing parts of their tusks, to make them less appealing to poachers.
This method of removing what the poachers see as valuable from the animal has been employed with rhinos as well. Rhino horns, like elephant tusks, are a lucrative trade, especially in Asia. Many believe that the rhino horn has special medicinal properties, curing everything from migraines to erectile dysfunction.