Under poaching pressure, elephants are evolving to lose their tusks

In Mozambique, researchers are racing to understand the genetics of elephants born without tusks—and the consequences of the trait.

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Elephants with a rare “tuskless” genetic trait had a better chance of surviving Mozambique’s long civil war, financed in part by poached ivory. About a third of surviving elephants’ daughters have no tusks.

The oldest elephants wandering Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park bear the indelible markings of the civil war that gripped the country for 15 years: Many are tuskless. They’re the lone survivors of a conflict that killed about 90 percent of these beleaguered animals, slaughtered for ivory to finance weapons and for meat to feed the fighters.

Hunting gave elephants that didn’t grow tusks a biological advantage in Gorongosa. Recent figures suggest that about a third of younger females—the generation born after the war ended in 1992—never developed tusks. Normally, tusklessness would occur only in about 2 to 4 percent of female African elephants.

Decades ago, some 4,000 elephants lived in Gorongosa, says Joyce Poole—an elephant behavior expert and National Geographic Explorer who studies the park’s pachyderms. But those numbers dwindled to triple digits following the civil war. New, as yet unpublished, research she’s compiled indicates that of the 200 known adult females, 51 percent of those that survived the war—animals 25 years or older—are tuskless. And 32 percent of the female elephants born since the war are tuskless.

A male elephant’s tusks are bigger and heavier than those of a female of the same age, says Poole, who serves as scientific director of a nonprofit called ElephantVoices. “But once there’s been heavy poaching pressure on a population, then the poachers start to focus on the older females as well,” she explains. “Over time, with the older age population, you start to get this really higher proportion of tuskless females.”

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