A study in Mozambique found ivory trade and selective poaching of elephants with tusks has led to growing numbers of tuskless female elephants, demonstrating the human impacts and interference on wildlife. 

What is Happening?

Ivory trade and selective poaching of elephants with tusks has led to a rapid evolution of tuskless elephants in Africa, according to a new study, demonstrating how human actions are directly changing the anatomy of wild animals. 

The study, which was published in the journal Science, examined the traits and genetics of elephants in Mozambique. It found that a previously rare genetic mutation that causes tusklessness has become a lot more commonly found in African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Gorongosa National Park.

The evolution has been attributed to the heavy poaching and ivory trade during The Mozambican Civil War, which lasted from 1977 to 1992. Elephants with tusks were hunted and killed by armed forces from both sides, and their ivory were sold to help fund the war efforts. 90% of the African elephant population in Gorongosa were lost as a result of the decades long conflict, dropping from more than 2,500 down to around 200 in the early 2000s.

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Though the population slowly recovered following the civil war, growing numbers of elephants, specifically females, were born tuskless, presenting a genetic trait that gives them a better chance of survival. The tuskless trait was only evident in about 18.5% of female elephants prior to the war. Among the 91 female elephants that have been born since the war, that percentage has risen up to 33%. This evolution is a clear example of the impact of human interference in nature. 

“What I think this study shows is that it’s more than just numbers. The impacts that people have, we’re literally changing the anatomy of animal,” Robert Pringle from Princeton University and lead author of the study said to the Guardian. 

Based on the research, the tuskless trait is seen only with females and not males. This can be linked to the genetics of tooth development where the mutation on the X chromosome is dominant for females and protects them from poaching, but is proved fatal in male elephants, preventing them from developing properly in the womb. 

However this evolutionary phenomena could be reversed as long as ivory trading and elephant poaching continues to decline. The elephant population in Mozambique has been steadily recovering and more than tripled since the 1990s. 

“So we actually expect that this syndrome will decrease in frequency in our study population, provided that the conservation picture continues to stay as positive as it has been recently,” Pringle adds. “There’s such a blizzard of depressing news about biodiversity and humans in the environment and I think it’s important to emphasise that there are some bright spots in that picture.”

Featured image by: Pixabay