Nature Thwarts Poachers, Elephants Being Born Without Tusks

April 3rd, 2019

Earlier this year, CBC News published an article discussing how, due to the pressures of poaching, an increasing number of elephants are being born without tusks.

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Elephant Voices Source: Elephant Voices

While the story may raise eyebrows, it’s unclear why it’s suddenly exploding again now. Are more elephants really being born without tusks? Yup, of that, there is no doubt— but contrary to popular belief, the phenomenon has been going on for years. In fact, BBC originally reported on the topic more than 20 years ago.

According to the reports, in areas where there is significant ivory poaching, an increasing number of elephants are being born without tusks.

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Vox/YouTube Source: Vox/YouTube

For example, according to National Geographic, during the Mozambique civil war, roughly 90% of the elephant population was killed, either for ivory to finance weapons or meat to feed the soldiers. Because tuskless elephants aren’t as valuable to poaching, these elephants made up the majority of the surviving population, passing on the tuskless genetic mutation to their offspring.

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hhmi Source: hhmi

Now, as a result, roughly 33% percent (or one third) of female elephants are being born tuskless— a number that naturally sits in the 2-4% range. This process is referred to as artificial selection— another version of ‘natural selection’ and survival of the fittest we so often hear being discussed. Ryan Long, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Idaho, told CTV News:

“When poachers are removing individuals from a population that have the capacity to grow tusks, the individuals that lack that capacity have a higher survival rate. They pass more of their genes onto the next generation and you get an increase in the prevalence of tusklessness.

“That’s evolution in action.”

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Futurism Source: Futurism

In South Africa, the shift to tusklessness has been particularly extreme. According to reports, 98% of the female population in Eddo Elephant Park was born without tusks. In a different interview, this time with National Geographic, Long said:

“The prevalence of tusklessness in Addo is truly remarkable and underscores the fact that high levels of poaching can do more than just remove individuals from a population.”

Sadly, unless the ivory trade dies down, one can assume elephants with tusks are likely to be slaughtered in even higher numbers than before.

In an article published by the University of Victoria, the author writes that in 1979, the biggest elephants had tusks weighing 92 lbs each. For poachers to gather one ton of ivory, they’d need 55 elephants. By 1999, they’d need to kill 113 elephants to gather the same amount.

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Vox Source: Vox

So, not only are elephants being born tuskless, the ones that are born with tusks have much smaller tusks than those in the past. It also goes to show that this is not necessarily a sudden trend.

Scientists still aren’t sure what this shift means for the elephant population.

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LADBible Source: LADBible

“Elephants use their tusks for all sorts of different things and so we’re trying to figure out right now if there are behavioral consequences to tusklessness that then scale up to influence the health and performance of elephant populations on the whole,” said Long.

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Source: Vox