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Elephants are evolving to lose tusks following decades of ivory poaching

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 6 days ago Sarah Knapton
African elephant eat in the lake Kariba. (Photo by Gilles MARTIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) © Gilles MARTIN/GAMMA-RAPHO African elephant eat in the lake Kariba. (Photo by Gilles MARTIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

It’s a development that would have delighted Darwin.

African elephants are losing their tusks in an astonishing example of evolution by natural selection which protects them against ivory poachers.

Until the 1990s, around 2,500 elephants lived in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, but 90 per cent were killed during the 15-year civil war which raged from 1977 to 1992 - with their ivory used to finance weapons.

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Now scientists have noticed that nearly one-third of the female elephants born since the war have lost their tusks.

File video: How poaching is changing the face of African elephants (Vox.com)

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Normally fewer than four per cent of a population are born without tusks, but because tuskless animals were ignored by poachers, they gained a biological advantage and were able to mate, and pass on their genes. A team from the University of Kent is now carrying out genetic studies to learn more about the new traits.

Doctoral student Dominique D'Emille Correia Gonçalves, an ecologist and conservation biologist from the University of Kent, who is studying the population, said: “The elephant population today is derived from most of the elephants who survived the war, where they were heavily poached for their tusks.

“The key explanation is that in Gorongosa National Park, the tuskless elephants were the ones which eluded poaching during the civil war and therefore passed this trait onto many of their daughters.

The anti poaching unit on patrol on the elephant trail in Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, 1989. (Photo by Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images) © 2007 Getty Images The anti poaching unit on patrol on the elephant trail in Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, 1989. (Photo by Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images)

“We could be talking about the removal of certain genes from the population.”

Even where the elephants are born with tusks they are often smaller than usual, again because poachers tended to pick out the animals with most ivory.

Poaching has also led to a decrease in tusk sizes in southern Kenya where survivors of a period of intense poaching had much smaller tusks, a pattern which was repeated in their offspring. And in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, 98 per cent of the females are now tuskless.

A merchant stands framed by carved elephant tusks at a 'thieves' market' in Kinshasa. Poaching and the illegal trafficking of ivory are an ongoing problem in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). (Photo by © Patrick Robert/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images) A merchant stands framed by carved elephant tusks at a 'thieves' market' in Kinshasa. Poaching and the illegal trafficking of ivory are an ongoing problem in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). (Photo by © Patrick Robert/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images)

“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,” Ryan Long, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Idaho told National Geographic.

“The consequences of such dramatic changes in elephant populations are only just beginning to be explored.”

Researchers in Gorongosa have also noticed that the females have developed a ‘culture of aggression’ and have a low tolerance to vehicles and people, which is likely to stem from a desire to protect their group against poachers, but also could be linked to the lack of tusks, which makes them more vulnerable.

In this Jan. 8, 2018 photo, an elephant tusk that was part of a $4.5 million illegal ivory seizure from a New York City antiques shop lay on a table at a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation warehouse in Albany, N.Y. To help support anti-poaching efforts, scientists will use carbon dating to determine when the elephant was killed and DNA analysis to pinpoint where it came from in Africa. (AP Photo/Mary Esch) © ASSOCIATED PRESS In this Jan. 8, 2018 photo, an elephant tusk that was part of a $4.5 million illegal ivory seizure from a New York City antiques shop lay on a table at a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation warehouse in Albany, N.Y. To help support anti-poaching efforts, scientists will use carbon dating to determine when the elephant was killed and DNA analysis to pinpoint where it came from in Africa. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

“This is a big change, as anecdotal records from people that have been in Gorongosa before the war suggest the family units used to be calm and almost indifferent to people presence,” added Miss Gonçalves.

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

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

Three tonnes of illegal ivory are displayed on February 6, 2014 in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris. France fired the latest volley in the world's uphill battle against African elephant poaching, crushing three tonnes of illegal ivory at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and urging others to follow suit. The contraband with an estimated street value of 1 million euros ($1.4 million) was fed into a machine and ground, with the powder to be carted off and incinerated. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY        (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images) © 2014 AFP Three tonnes of illegal ivory are displayed on February 6, 2014 in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris. France fired the latest volley in the world's uphill battle against African elephant poaching, crushing three tonnes of illegal ivory at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and urging others to follow suit. The contraband with an estimated street value of 1 million euros ($1.4 million) was fed into a machine and ground, with the powder to be carted off and incinerated. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Elephants use their tusks when digging for water, debarking trees to secure fibrous food, and they helping males compete for females.

Scientists are now monitoring the elephants by attaching GPS satellite collars to 10 females from different family units to find out if being tuskless affects their ability to feed and breed.

Evolutionary biologists at the University of California Los Angeles, are also studying blood to find out how genetics influences the tusklessness and why it occurs predominantly in females.

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