Elephants Evolve to Lose Tusks in Fight Against Poaching

Elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park are evolving to be tuskless. After a civil war that plagued the nation for 15 years, an estimated 90 percent of the elephant population were killed for ivory to finance the war and meat to feed the fights. The elephants that survived the conflict were typically tuskless and have since passed that trait on to their offspring.

The generation born since the war ended in 1992 bear striking differences from those typically imagined when thinking of an elephant. About a third of females born in this generation never developed tusks. For African elephants, tusklessness should typically occur in only 2-4 percent of the population.

Rates of Tuskless Elephants Increases Across Africa

Though this transition towards tusklessness was identified and studied in Mozambique, but it is not unique to the region. Across the continent, areas with high rates of elephant poaching are noticing a shift in the ratio of tusk bearing to tuskless elephants across the population.

South Africa’s elephants have experienced one of the most drastic changes. At the Addo Elephant National Park, 98 percent of the 174 females were reportedly tuskless in the early 2000s.

“The prevalence of tusklessness in Addo is truly remarkable and underscores the fact that high levels of poaching pressure can do more than just remove individuals from a population,” said Ryan Long, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Idaho and a National Geographic Explorer. “[The] consequences of such dramatic changes in elephant populations are only just beginning to be explored.”

Efforts are ongoing to protect elephants in South Africa and across the continent. Krueger National Park, in particular, is known for its years of success protecting elephants guarded on their property. However, these more recent efforts struggle to rectify centuries of elephant poaching and a species-wide trend towards elephants without their trademark tusks.

History of Elephant Poaching in Africa

This evolution towards tusklessness happened slowly, requiring decades and generations to develop. A long-standing history of elephant poaching provided the catalyst needed to fuel this change.

Elephants have long lost the battle against the demand for their tusks. Demand for ivory products to construct piano keys, jewelry, and art ornaments created a market for the tusks, and the Ivory Trade soon decimated African elephant populations.

In 1800, an estimated 26 million elephants lived in Africa. Today, that number stands at less than one million. The rapid decrease came as a result of the ivory frenzy in the early 1900s. While a worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 helped to avoid the extinction of the species, populations have only begun to rebound to their current levels.

Poaching continues to be a source of conflict across the continent. Farmers and locals around elephant sanctuaries worry about their lives and livelihoods and combining conservation efforts with the future sustainability of these communities is essential to the long-term success of the the movement.

At Stop Poaching Now, we work with groups on the ground in Africa and Asia to ensure our projects help both the animals and the people that surround and care for them. If you’re ready to bring communities together, raise awareness, and protect our rapidly depleting natural world, join us at Stop Poaching Now!


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