Elephants Are Evolving Right Before Our Eyes, As More Are Being Born Without Tusks Due To Poaching

Once prized for their ivory, being born without tusks confers an evolutionary advantage on the pachyderms.

elephants are evolving right in front of us
Claudia Paulussen / Shutterstock

Once prized for their ivory, being born without tusks confers an evolutionary advantage on the pachyderms.

Elephants are evolving right in front of scientists’ eyes, as more and more of the animals are being born without tusks, National Geographic reports. Being born without tusks confers an evolutionary advantage on the animals, who are more likely to survive since poachers aren’t going to kill them for their tusks, which would otherwise be used in the illegal ivory trade.

Evolution is a slow and painstaking process that takes place over millions – billions, even – of years. But in extreme cases, such as the decimation of a population due to illegal hunting, evolution will sometimes “jump the gun,” so to speak, and fundamentally change an organism within a few generations.

Such has been the case with African elephants, says Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert and spokesperson for ElephantVoices.

In Mozambique, for example, tens of thousands of the animals once roamed Gorongosa National Park. But 15 years of civil war took a devastating toll on the animals, reducing their numbers to the low three digits. The beasts were slaughtered en masse for their tusks (and to a lesser extent, their meat). Those tusks were used in the illegal ivory trade, with the proceeds going to fund the various factions of the country’s civil war.

Those that remain either miraculously survived or are part of the new generation.

elephants are evolving in front of us
The trade in illegal ivory has decimated Africa’s elephant populations – and funded its civil wars. Gavin Shire / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

As for the new generation of elephants, researchers are noticing something startling: They’re more likely to be born without tusks.

Prior to the last few decades, tusklessness occurred in about 2 to 4 percent of new elephant births. In Mozambique, that percentage is now up to above 30 percent in females. And in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, that number is as high as 98 percent for females, says behavioral ecologist Ryan Long.

And you can blame poaching.

“The prevalence of tusklessness in Addo is truly remarkable and underscores the fact that high levels of poaching pressure can do more than just remove individuals from a population. [The] consequences of such dramatic changes in elephant populations are only just beginning to be explored.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, elephants use their tusks to strip bark from trees, to dig holes, for defense, and for lifting objects, among other uses. So an elephant born without tusks would be at a disadvantage, at least compared to other elephants. However, being less attractive to poachers confers an evolutionary advantage, and in this case, evolution appears to be choosing to favor elephants without tusks.