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Unnatural Selection: Why Tuskless Elephants Are on the Rise

Next time you’re out on safari with us, pay close attention to the elephants. See anything unusual? Depending on where we’re touring, you might notice that one of the more identifying features of African elephants—their tusks—are suddenly in short supply.

Lately, tuskless elephants are more common than they are rare.

Spotting a grown elephant without tusks is not unheard of—if you’re spending a few days out in the bush tracking some pachyderm packs, you might expect to see a few adult elephants without a pair of prominent pokers. Tusklessness is a naturally occurring trait in about 4% of the population of female elephants, and 1% of males—uncommon, certainly, but not black leopard rare.

However, if we’re roaming around Tanzania’s Ruaha or searching through the Nyerere, the picture can be quite different. In these parks, and others like South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park and Mozambique’s Gorongosa, the number of tusk-free adults has risen suddenly to around one out of every three.

These sudden and drastic differences in select elephant populations aren’t easily explained by the typically slow-moving process of natural selection. Here, it seems, Mother Nature’s patient hand has been hurried along—and as recent research suggests, an unfortunate shared history of intense poaching may be the driving force.

Why do Elephants have tusks?

Tusks, which are basically oversized front teeth, grow in most African elephants within the first year of life. In males especially, these showy incisors are indicators of breeding prowess. Capable of growing to nearly 10 feet in length, tusks are wielded in battles for territory and breeding rights alike—so as tradition and practicality have it, bigger means better.

They’re also enormously practical tools. Water can be hard to come by during dry times in the elephants’ ecosystems—sometimes a thirsty pachyderm has to dig seven feet underground to find a supply, and 10-foot long spikes surely help that process. Tusks facilitate the chore of scraping off tough tree bark to get at the nutritious, tender fibers beneath, and make rooting up underground tubers a cinch. Whether for clearing a path or getting to tasty roots, tusks also give gainful leverage to toppling tree trunks.

For all this utility and arguable necessity, the less toothsome populations of elephants in Ruaha and Nyerere seem not to be having a tough time with fewer tusks, so to speak, on hand. Already, habits are changing in the wild, with tuskless elephants employing their strong trunks to strip trees of their bark—or digging in with their teeth. Some optimistic loxodontaphiles (perhaps an ironic word to whip out here) might point out that most Asian elephants have been tuskless-and-loving-it for hundreds or thousands of years.

The Ivory/Elephant Tusk Trade Market History

For most of the last century, trade in the ivory market had been robust—and devastating to its victims. From an estimated population of 26 million in 1800, hunting and poaching ravaged elephant populations down to less than a million during the mid-20th century. By the time strict international bans on ivory were legislated and enforced in 1989, African elephants numbered only 600,000 in the wild.

The 1980s were particularly rough on the ivory-bearing elephants in African national parks like Ruaha and Nyerere. In a short time, the once-advantageous trait of large tusks became a genetic liability, and elephants with smaller or non-existent tusks found themselves more highly represented among surviving populations. The effect has been even starker in Addo and Gorongosa, where poaching—further fueled, in Gorongosa’s case, by the financial burdens of a civil war—claimed 90% of elephant lives over a 15-year period.

At the point when the ivory market was at the verge of being shut down, the supply of tusks and ivory got scarcer, yet demand was steady. In 1989, the worldwide network passed a worldwide prohibition on the exchange new ivory to stop the murdering of elephants. Just ivory that had been gathered before 1989 could be sold, so the ivory cutting industry in China disintegrated, and with it the interest for tusks. Elephant populations rebounded — so much so that in 1999 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global organization, decided to allow a “one-off” sale of pre-ban, stockpiled ivory to Japan.

In 2008, CITES approved another “one-off” deal, this opportunity to Japanese and Chinese markets. The Chinese cutting industry thundered back to life, as the Chinese government authorized many cutting industrial facilities and retail outlets. Since there’s no real way to recognize pre-boycott and new ivory, the unlawful ivory exchange has quickened to fulfill the need, and poaching is presently more terrible than before the worldwide boycott.

While history has had a particular focus on Asia’s ivory markets, the impact to the species was worldwide – including the elephant populations throughout Africa. As of 2016, the ivory trade market is unfortunately still alive and poachers are still on the lookout.

For instance, one pound of ivory typically sells for $1,500 on the black market, and with the average elephant tusk weighing-in somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds, the amount of money on the table is still lucrative enough to get caught. There still remains a bit of a poacher’s paradox since the very thing these individuals are seeking have become more scarce because of their very own efforts.

A Shift in the Gene Pool: Elephants born with Small or Missing Tusks

Following the 1989 ban on the ivory trade, numbers began to rise again. But now, especially in these pockets of heavier poaching pressure, breeding populations had been changed forever from the norm. Fathers in this generation’s parents-to-be were far more likely have smaller tusks overall, and hopeful mothers were much more likely to have no tusks at all—traits that were then, once again, more likely to be passed down to their children.

During mating seasons, female elephants are naturally gravitated towards those elephants with longer and/or larger tusks, but with the dwindling options for large-tusked elephants, females are now limited to mating with smaller-tusked elephants, or even with elephants who were born without their ivory tusks.

Evidence for this hereditary disendowment seems to be showing in the younger generations. A study by the Kenya Wildlife Service has shown that among males under the age of 25, average tusk size had dropped by 20% compared to their parents’ cohort. Tuskless females of this Generation Z of elephants now represent a tenth and a third of the female populations of Ruaha and Gorongosa, respectively.

The Future of Elephants and their Ivory Tusks

While this data isn’t direct proof of exactly how the genetics play out (and is further complicated by modern resurgences of poaching in, for example, the Nyerere), the results are nonetheless highly suggestive—and apparent. But is this trend toward fewer and smaller tusks safe for the elephants in the long run? Will poachers finally end their elephant hunt as their tusks become rarer to find?

A game warden holds an elephant tusk at the National Parks of Zimbabwe headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe

The long-term effects—both for the elephants and their ecosystems—remain to be seen. Many other species rely on the tuski-work of elephants’ hole-digging and tree-tipping, and the tuskless elephant’s stomping grounds may spread into new territory if there emerges an eventual need for more accessible sustenance.

Studies to establish and better understand the genetic factors for tusk inheritance are ongoing, and elephant diets are being closely monitored to watch for any sudden changes or deficiencies. Still threatened by other factors in addition to poaching, elephants continue their parade. Even in the face of aggressive destruction, nature, it seems, has found a way.

At Penwell, we only provide the most responsible safari experiences possible that respect the African wildlife, its people, and its environment. Reach out to us today and ask us more about our perspective on the case of smaller and missing elephant tusks and how we create custom safari tours around elephant interactions.

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