Elephants Evolving Not to Grow Tusks to Stay Safe from Poachers

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Ivory hunting, while illegal in many areas, led to the deaths of nearly 90 percent of the elephants at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The mass slaughter helped finance weapons used in the country’s civil war, which carried on for 16 years. Now, the female elephants are evolving to stay off the radar of poachers for good.

The civil war in Mozambique came to an end in 1992. Since then, according to a report by the Daily Mail, approximately one-third of the female African elephants in the Gorongosa National Park that have been born have not developed any tusks.

Much of the herd either had no tusks or smaller than average ones after the civil war, likely because these elephants would not have been targeted by poachers.

Since the presence and size of the tusks is an inherited trait, the parents began passing down the smaller or missing tusk genes to their babies, making them less attractive to poachers as well.

Usually, male and female African elephants have ivory tusks that are capable of growing to lengths reaching up to 10 feet.

Dominique D’Emille Correia Gonçalves, a student working towards a Ph.D. at the University of Kent and part of the research team studying the elephants, stated, “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 researcher continued. “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.”

Female African elephants at the park are also developing a “culture of aggression” towards people, possibly due to the need to defend their young from poachers.

“Many of the matriarchs and lead females of the family units were alive during the slaughter and saw their families and friends being hunted,” said the researcher.

“They are survivors, and the trauma is still present, which would explain such intolerance to humans.”