Humanity’s impact on the animal kingdom is often difficult to measure. It is difficult to detect gradual changes in behaviour over time, or the subtle habitat relocation of a species. However, in the case of the African elephant, the impact mankind is having on the species is clearly visible.
At Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, the effects of decades of elephant poaching for the ivory trade has left its mark on the animal population. 98% of the park’s female elephant population was born tuskless. In a healthy ecosystem, the normal rate of tusklessness in African elephant births is between 2 and 6%.
The cause of this genetic drift can be traced back to the 1920s when poaching ravaged the local elephant population. By 1931, only 11 elephants remained in Addo, decades of poaching had slaughtered all but eight females and three males. Of the eight females left alive, four had no tusks- a feature that no doubt saved them from the poacher’s guns.
As Addo’s elephant population recovered, the prominence of tusklessness in the gene pool led to an unnaturally high number of tuskless births. Even those born with tusks in Addo today have smaller tusks than their counterparts that roamed a century before. The strong presence of the tuskless gene isn’t just producing tuskless offspring, it is shortening the tusks of the elephants born with them.
Similar trends have been reported across the African continent. In Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, the elephant population diminished by 90% between 1992 and 1997. As the poachers targeted the animals for their tusks, tuskless females were overrepresented among the surviving elephants. Today, around 30% of Gorongosa’s female elephants were born without tusks.
Tuskless elephants are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to digging for food and water. They are used to strip bark from trees to eat and, in times of drought, are essential for digging holes in dry river beds to find a water source.
As the African summers become hotter, the effects of this man-made genetic phenomenon could have catastrophic results for the African elephant population. These elegant beasts need our protection, not just for their immediate survival, but for their future genetic security.
For visitors hoping to visit Addo, the South African National Parks site has directions and accommodation options.