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Why Are Elephants Evolving Without Their Tusks?

Worldly Wednesday
Mother and baby elephant in the wild on a grass plain

What are Elephant Tusks?

Elephant’s tusks, or the elongated teeth made of ivory that extend beyond their mouths, are there for more than aesthetics. Elephants use these tusks to dig for food, strip bark from trees, dig holes in search of water, and fight for mates. Weary elephants will even sometimes rest their trunks upon their tusks. 

Yet despite playing a vital role in their survival, several elephant species throughout Africa have evolved to be tuskless. Why? 

Long-Term Effects of Poaching

The answer is, of course, human impact. The 15 year-long war in Mozambique seems to be the primary culprit of this strange trait change: While violence raged through the country, nearly 90% of the resident elephant population was killed for their tusks, the ivory sold to finance weaponry.

Because the elephants were primarily killed for their ivory, the remaining survivors had a disproportionately high percentage of elephants naturally born without tusks - thus, more tuskless elephants were able to pass on their genetic makeup to following generations. 

Elephant and hand reaching out

 

Typically, less than 2% of the African elephant population is born naturally tuskless. Today, with poaching still rampant, nearly half of Gorongosa Park’s African elephants are born this way. This is not a random event: Research shows that female elephants born without tusks are 5 times more likely to survive because of their lack of poachable ivory. 

The phenomenon is not limited to Mozambique, either. Increasing reports of tuskless survivors have been documented in other highly-poached areas throughout Africa such as Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. 

Elephant’s tusks also play a larger role in the ecosystems that they live in. When elephants use their tusks to dig holes to access water or topple trees, lower animals also drink the water and create habitats in the fallen foliage. When elephants are forced to change their natural habit, entire ecosystems shift as well. Long term, tusklessness will impact how quickly elephants move, how they source their nutrients, and how they mate. 

The Elephant Legend Bracelet

Legend has partnered with Reteti Elephant Sanctuary to help support their mission to save orphaned and abandoned elephant calves and releasing them back into wild herds.

 

Elephant standing in front of Legend bracelet

 

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