African Elephants are Evolving to Save Themselves
Sat, April 17, 2021

African Elephants are Evolving to Save Themselves

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed African elephants as vulnerable with only 415,000 of them left in the wild. / Photo by: Jonathan Pledger via 123rf

 

When we think about animals that we'd love to see in the wild, elephants would probably be among the top in our list. But this dream may never happen as the number of elephants has drastically gone down every year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed African elephants as vulnerable with only 415,000 of them left in the wild. Reports also showed that about 90 percent of these animals were killed in the past century.

National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, reported that Tanzania and Mozambique have the greatest declines of African elephants, with a combined loss of 73,000 to poaching in just five years. In northern Cameroon, a tiny regional population of elephants is in immediate danger of extinction as survey teams could count no more than 148 elephants in the region. 

"More African elephants are now being poached than being born. No one wants to grow up in a world without elephants and the clock is ticking to save them,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said. 

Meanwhile, Asian elephants are also declining with only 40,000 to 50,000 elephants left in the wild. Their number has declined by at least 50 percent in the last three generations due to loss of habitat. Humans often take the land where these animals live to farm and develop it. As a result, Asian elephants have disappeared from around 85 percent of the areas where they used to live. In India, more than 50 elephants are killed each year. 

The Illegal Ivory Trade

One of the major reasons why elephants are killed is due to their tusks. The Week, a website that publishes distinctive online stories throughout the week, reported that an average of one African elephant is killed by poachers every 25 minutes. Because of this, the overall African elephant population has declined by more than 25 percent between 2006 and 2015. Reports also showed that half of all elephants in the country were lost to the ivory trade between 1979 and 1989.

Elephants’ tusks are heavily sought after because they can be used in several ways. They are used to make billiards balls, piano keys, identification chops, mahjong tiles, and many other items for human enjoyment. The ivory from an elephant's tusks is estimated to be worth $21,000 or more. This is why a lot of hunters are still killing the animals despite their decreasing numbers. Every day, thousands of elephants across the world are being slaughtered for their tusks, which are traded illegally in the international market.

According to the WWF, the elephants’ tusks are the hardest tissue in their bodies and serve a variety of purposes. These include digging, lifting objects, gathering food, stripping bark from trees to eat, and for defense. Elephants also use them as formidable weapons against potential predators or in a battle against other elephants. 

Elephants are Losing Their Tusks

Tusks continue to grow throughout an elephant’s life. The tusks of an African elephant can grow up to 10 feet long (three meters) and weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms). However, it was discovered that the average size of tusks has decreased over the past hundred years. 

Earlier this year, reports said that a lot of elephants at the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa, were losing one distinguishable feature that they have: tusks. Generally, only 4 percent of female elephants have no tusks. However, this figure has been increasing steadily among these wild animals. According to Sustainability Times, an online home for news, debate, and analysis on every facet of sustainability, a third of younger female elephants in the park have failed to develop any tusk. 

The number of elephants that have no tusks is increasing because they tend to survive longer since they don’t appeal to poachers. Thus, their genes are passed on to the next generation, which leads to more elephants being born without their massive teeth. Poachers leave female elephants with no tusks alone, which is why they have a better chance of surviving and giving birth to offspring that will then inherit their tuskless condition. Reports showed that as many as 51 percent out of 200 adult females that survived the war in 1992 have no tusks. 

Researchers believe that the reason for this evolution is the heavy presence of poaching. Elephants felt the need to evolve without tusks, so their human predators have no reason to kill them anymore. 

 

The number of elephants that have no tusks is increasing because they tend to survive longer since they don’t appeal to poachers. / Photo by: traveland via 123rf

 

Ryan Long, a researcher who has studied the elephants at Gorongosa National Park, stated that the tusks that were once integral in elephants’ lives have suddenly become a liability. "And so, as opposed to being something that benefits elephants, those elephants that have tusks ... they're the ones that get targeted first,” he said. 

However, the Tembe people, a Tsonga tribe of about 500,000, is not letting this happen. Recently, iNkosi (King) Mabhudu Tembe, the tribe’s leader and a foundation member, announced that they will be expanding Tembe Elephant Park to as much as 26,000 hectares (64,200 acres). According to Mongabay.com, an online site that seeks to raise interest in and appreciation of wildlands and wildlife, this will allow Africa’s “big tuskers” to grow. 

The preservation of Tembe’s tuskers and moves to expand the park is important not only for protecting the elephants but also for broader conservation reasons. “The future of these animals depends on us contributing more land to grow the park and keep them healthy and moving freely. This is something we could all agree on as the people of Tembe,” the tribe leader said. 

Elephants are evolving but not for a good reason. This is a wake-up call for humans that we are not just killing these wild animals, we are also changing their very nature.