Nearly one-third of female elephants are missing their front teeth in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. In fact, according to a new report from Nautilus, tuskless females are becoming increasingly common in these populations, as poachers slaughter those with the precious white ivory.
This begs the question, is poaching causing elephants to evolve without tusks?
While almost all male African elephants have tusks, around 2 to 6 percent of females live life with none whatsoever. However, 33 percent of younger females are now born without tusks in the park, as poaching during Mozambique’s civil war from 1977 to 1992 wiped out large numbers of those with tusks.
Today, this means their population “ends up with a higher proportion of tuskless animals who then reproduce and tend to produce tuskless offspring,” Dr Joyce Pool, an ethologist and co-founder of Elephant Voices, told Nautilus. “In this day and age, with all the poaching going on, tuskless elephants are at an advantage because they are not being targeted for their tusks.”
Poaching aside, elephants with tusks are typically the ones with the advantage: They use their long curved teeth to strip bark from trees and to dig for food and water. Males use their tusks to combat one another for the attention of females.
Unfortunately, poaching has caused Africa’s elephant population to decline by around 100,000 since 2006, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in September.
“These new numbers reveal the truly alarming plight of the majestic elephant – one of the world's most intelligent animals and the largest terrestrial mammal alive today,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “It is shocking but not surprising that poaching has taken such a dramatic toll on this iconic species.”
And the toll may very well include tuskless females. If poaching is artificially selecting for tuskless elephants, then this swift decline in their numbers may be driving complex changes in the makeup of their populations.
In Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, for example, these numbers are even more startling: 98 percent of females lack tusks. When the park was created, half the females lacked tusks after big game hunters killed the others.
The same pressure is not placed on males. “Because males require tusks for fighting, tusklessness has been selected against in males and very few males are tuskless,” said Poole to the African Wildlife Foundation.
If poaching is successfully fought and defeated, it’s likely the percentage of females with tusks will return to normal due to how useful they are for the species. To learn more, check out this video by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.