Tuskless in Africa

Researchers is Africa are eagerly attempting to collect data to better understand why a growing number of elephants in Africa are tuskless. Majority of the effort is concentrated to the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. During a fifteen year period (1977-1992), Mozambique was in the midst of a civil war. At least one million people had lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were maimed or injured. Although, humans were not the only ones that lost their lives during this tumultuous time.

In order to feed and provide munitions to the soldiers, the opposing armies slaughtered about 90% of the elephant population in the area. Roughly 4,000 elephants lived in Gorongosa, but those numbers shrunk to the triple digits after the civil war. It was beneficial for the soldiers to slaughter the tusked elephants as they provided necessary monetary gains as opposed to the “tuskless” elephants. This allowed elephants with less desirable features to survive. Therefore, elephants living in the once war-savaged Gorongosa National Park are showing signs of tusk growth reduction. Some elephants have noticeably shorter tusks or none at all. The recent figures collected suggest about a third of younger females that were born after the war ended in 1992 never developed tusks. The normal percentage of females without tusks is about 2-4% of the entire African elephant population. This is a significant variable that may have major implications for the future of African elephants.

One could say that it is a great evolutionary step for elephants, a species that has been hunted to near extinction for their ivory tusks. However, it may not be that great of an occurrence. Elephants are a keystone species; they contribute immensely to the diversity of their habitat and provide life giving modifications. Their incredible power and tusks can dig into the lifeless dirt to sprout a watering hole or knock down enormous trees to get to the vegetation at the top. Water is extremely important to animals roaming on the African plains. When scarce, elephants will use their tusks to pierce and carve out large sections in the Earth, along with digging with their feet, to reveal underground water to quench the thirst of the herd. Other animals will then join in on the consumption of the discovered water including antelope, humans and cattle. By knocking down trees, elephants open up the landscape for more grazing areas for other herbivores as well as allowing other animals to munch on the left over vegetation that may be needed during a drought where plants may be infrequent. Elephants also eat seeds off the trees and disperse the seeds through their dung as they travel thus replanting trees. Without their tusks, elephants could possibly be dealing with the inability to obtain water or knock trees down to reach vegetation. The repercussions can easily spread to other species that rely on elephants for survival.

Without elephants in an ecosystem, other species may very well be endangered or non-existent. There is not enough scientific data on whether or not elephants losing their tusks will have a huge impact on the elephants themselves or the ecosystem; however, time will tell. As a response to over poaching by humans for several centuries and recent conflicts, elephants in the Gorongosa National Park are taking matters into their own tusks to ensure their survival in today’s world. There have been recent bans on ivory sales in China and the United States which may help reduce the demand for tusks; however, it is not known when the elephant population may recover from this act or if it may change the evolution of tusklessness among them all together.

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