Be it man or animals, the need for survival has been paramount and at the forefront of everything we do. So why should elephants be any different? Turns out, ‘tuskless’ is becoming a common phenomenon among elephants. Scientists tell us why.
The War Effects
The civil war that gripped Mozambique for 15 long years has not just left its mark on the land and the minds of people, but also on the oldest herd of elephants. Having survived the long war that was partly financed by poached ivory, it comes as no surprise that the daughters of about one third of the surviving elephants are born toothless.
Not many would know that almost 90 percent of the animals were killed – either to feed the hungry fighters or for ivory that fetched a fortune. Poaching has apparently, triggered an evolution among elephants causing them to give up their tusks. As opposed to previous statistics that suggested that only 2-4 per cent of African female elephants were born without tusks, the figures have changed after the war. The biological advantage that they get due to this trait in Gorongosa could be the reason for this evolution.
Dominique D’Emille Correia Gonçalves, ecologist and conservation biologist throws light on this subject. As reported by the Mail Online, he said: “Ivory poaching targets big tusked animals, so it removes the ‘big tusk’ gene out of the population. The elephant population today is derived from most of the elephants who survived the war, where they were heavily poached for their tusks. The key explanation is that in Gorongosa National Park, the tuskless elephants were the ones which eluded poaching during the civil war and passed this trait onto many of their daughters. These tuskless elephants are growing from the survivors of poaching, so while we are not talking about evolution yet, we could be talking about the removal of certain genes from the population.”
The Staggering Statistics
Reports suggest that Gorongosa was inhabited by about 4000 elephants in the late 70s but the numbers dwindled to a huge extent post the war. As per Joyce Poole’s recent (yet to be published) research, 51 percent of the 200 known adult females who are war survivors and aged 25 or more, are tuskless. And that’s not all. 32 percent of females born post war are tuskless.
Poole is an elephant behavior expert and National Geographic Explorer, and has interesting insights to offer about this evolution. She explains, “A male elephant’s tusks are bigger and heavier than those of a female of the same age. But once there’s been heavy poaching pressure on a population, then the poachers start to focus on the older females as well. Over time, with the older age population, you start to get this really higher proportion of tuskless females.”
Not Just Mozambique
Countries that have witnessed heavy poaching for ivory have noticed this shift as well. In South Africa, this shift in female survivors and their daughters is significant. Statistics pertaining to the Addo Elephant National Park in the early 2000s indicate that 98 percent of the 174 females were tuskless.
Tusks have an important role to play in the lives of elephants since they help them dig the ground for water or minerals, scrape the bark off trees and even compete for mates. However, with survival mode on, these animals are modifying themselves to become tuskless. While it may help them against poaching, it’s not ideal. As reported by BBC, “…an elephant without tusks is a crippled elephant”.