African Elephants Are Evolving To Not Grow Tusks Because Of Poachers

This is sad.

African elephants are known for their beautiful ivory tusks but, increasingly, the animals are lacking this distinguishing feature. Experts believe that the elephants are evolving to not grow tusks because of the high incidence of poaching.

“There’s multiple things that could produce that sort of thing in elephant populations, but the leading hypothesis … is that there’s been a substantial amount of pressure placed on those populations by poachers,” Ryan Long, an assistant professor of Wildlife Sciences at University of Idaho, who has studied the elephants at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa, told CBS News.

elephant tusk photo
Getty Images | David McNew

During Mozambique’s civil war in the 1970s through the 1990s, large numbers of elephants with tusks were killed off. The elephants were poached for the ivory contained in their tusks, which is believed to have healing and restorative properties. In the past, only about four to six percent of female elephants lacked tusks. Now, about one-third of the female elephants lack tusks.

Although the tuskless elephants are most healthy and functional, tusks do serve several purposes. They help elephants dig for water and minerals in the ground, debark trees for fibrous food and help males compete for females.

Typically, male elephants use their tusks more than female elephants, so the female elephants without tusks are adapting better to the new trait.

african elephants photo
Getty Images | Cameron Spencer

“If you don’t have big tusks, you may not breed [if you’re a male elephant],” Long explained. “Whereas for female elephants, there’s always been a background level of tusklessness in most elephant populations that aren’t subjected to poaching pressure.”

Experts are still unsure of how elephant populations will fare long-term without tusks.

“Maybe tusklessness is the future,” Michael Paxton, a ranger in South Africa’s Kruger National Park along the Mozambique border, told The New York Times. “Our cows have gone a hundred years without tusks and they’ve done O.K.”