Plot Twist! Elephants Come Up With a Foolproof Way to Survive Ivory Poachers

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©. By matthieu Gallet

Never ever underestimate the intelligence of Mother Nature.

A strange thing has been observed among the young female elephants of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park: About a third of them never developed tusks.

While tusklessness is not unheard of in female African elephants, normally it would only happen in about two to four percent of them. The tuskless crew in question here are amongst the first generation born after the end of Mozambique’s 15-year-long civil war, a war in which much was financed through the slaughter of elephants for ivory. Ninety percent of the area’s elephants were killed, yet those without tusks survived. And now they’ve passed the trait on to their daughters.

Dina Fine Maron writes about the phenomenon for National Geographic and notes that it’s not just in Mozambique where elephants seem to be taking their fate into their own hands. “Other countries with a history of substantial ivory poaching also see similar shifts among female survivors and their daughters,” she writes. For example, at South Africa’s Addo Elephant Park, 98 percent of the females were tuskless in the early 2000s.

“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,” says Ryan Long, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Idaho and a National Geographic Explorer.

How the trait is passed on remains a mystery, according to Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California Los Angeles who is on a team of researchers studying tusklessness. The phenomenon is nearly exclusive to females, which makes sense since males without tusks would be at a disadvantage for mating. Maron writes, “But if this trait was traditionally X-linked—passed down along the X chromosome, which helps determine sex and carries genes for various inherited traits—we would think that because males always get their X chromosome from their mothers that you’d have a really large population of males that are tuskless.”

Regardless, the tuskless females would seem to have an advantage in this tragically ivory-hungry world of ours. But are they otherwise disadvantaged to be without such an important tool? Elephants use their tusks for everything from digging for water to stripping bark from trees to access food.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the tuskless elephants are apparently not suffering any ill health effects. They are finding workarounds, including using their trunks and teeth, and feeding on softer trees or trees which have been “started” by another elephant. (That said, what elephants do with their tusks is important for other species as well. For instance, a number of species depend on the roughed-up bark and water holes for their habitat.)

Researchers are now studying how tusklessness might be changing elephants’ behavior. Do they need a larger area for foraging? Will it change where they live and how quickly they move?

“Any or all of these changes in behavior could result in changes to the distribution of elephants across the landscape, and it’s those broad-scale changes that are most likely to have consequences for the rest of the ecosystem,” Long says.

There are many questions to be answered and nobody is exactly sure where this will go, but one thing is certain: Elephants without tusks will not be killed for ivory. These ladies are in it to win it. And while it might not be a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination, it’s amazing to see how these extraordinary creatures are schooling the humans.