How Human Enjoyment Is Creating A New Generation Of Elephants

Photo credit: Tobin Rogers, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant – the only harmless great thing.” ~John Donne

One of the masterpieces of elephants is their tusk. The long, curved ivory tusks give elephants their majestic appearance. Unfortunately, the beauty of their majesty makes elephants a target for poachers.

Poaching is not new. During the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992), elephants were poached for ivory to buy weapons and food for soldiers. During that time, no one could have imagined the fate that would befall the world’s largest land animal.

Post-war, some elephants have devolved into tuskless pachyderms. According to a Duke University and Kenya Wildlife Service study, surviving elephants of the poaching period have smaller than average (10-foot-long) tusks compared to elephants captured in southern Kenya between 2005-2013.

North Luangwa, Zambia; Ruaha National Park, Tanzania; and South Africa are experiencing the same tuskless elephant phenomenon.

Although poaching is the catalyst of this occurrence, scientists believe elephants have evolved for survival. They theorize that parent elephants, which saw their families slaughtered during the war, have passed the tuskless gene to their offspring to protect them from poachers. Basically, nature removed the ‘big tusk’ gene as a survival mechanism. 

Although this might sound like the elephants outsmarted the humans and a solution to poaching, it jeopardizes an elephant’s survival. Tusks are crucial to elephants for defense, offense, digging for water when it’s dry, lifting objects, gathering food, and stripping bark from trees.

As humans, we must look at how our desire for ivory, and luxuries made from ivory, has lasting effects on elephants.

Elephant families were primarily calm. Experts have noticed aggressive behavior by female elephants towards humans and automobiles. Scientists speculate that it could be due to the lack of tusks. It may also be linked to the trauma of seeing their elephant families hunted and slaughtered.

Elephants with tusks are also considered suitable mates. If elephants continue to evolve tuskless, they will not be considered as mates. All of these factors could ultimately affect the ecosystem around them.