The world’s African elephants are in serious danger. It is estimated that one is killed every 15 minutes for their ivory tusks, and if we do nothing to put an end to the illegal ivory trade, elephants will be extinct from the wild within in the next 20 years. Elephants have graced the planet for thousands of years and their loss would inextricably alter their native habitat. While countries like the U.S. and China have taken action to try and mitigate the illegal ivory trade, it appears that this action is not moving quickly enough to save the world’s elephants – however, there is a new form of hope rising from nature itself.
African elephants are being born without the tusks that poachers have targeted for decades. That’s right, the largest land mammal on earth is now being born tuskless since elephants without tusks have a better chance of surviving and passing on genes.
In Addo Elephant National Park, in South Africa as many as 98 percent of female elephants no longer have tusks; this follows a massacring of the creatures by poachers in 1931, which left only 11 elephants remaining, four of them tuskless.
The depressing adaptation has arisen at a time where elephants are in serious danger of extinction.
The vitally important Great Elephant Census revealed that almost a third of African elephants were wiped out between 2007 and 2014 alone for the sake of ivory. The detailed survey took count of carcasses and found the highest occurrences in Cameroon (83 percent), Mozambique (32 percent), Angola (30 percent) and Tanzania (26 percent). The report states that carcass ratios above eight percent are enough to indicate poaching at a serious level, enough to bring about a decline in population. The situation is so bleak, that these intelligent giants have even been observed attempting to hide their tusks.
So, is it a good thing if they don’t have tusks, to stop poachers from killing and robbing them?
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It is never acceptable for a creature to lose its natural habitat or the opportunity to interact with that habitat in an instinctive way. Elephant tusks are not there for table ornaments or piano keys; they are needed to dig for sustenance, to fight, to move around trees and of course, for sexual display. An elephant’s tusks are a key part of elephant life, not to mention the entire ecosystem that surrounds them.
Many believe that a poacher could extract ivory without killing the elephant – this is not true. Only two-thirds of an elephant’s tusks are visible, the rest lies beneath the surface like an iceberg in water. The tusk is not just bone but rather it is alive, filled with nerves and blood vessels and when broken off, the tusks would likely become infected and lead to a slow and painful death.
Fearing for the survival of “great tuskers” in particular, scientists have attempted to preserve these mighty-tusked bulls by extracting and freezing the elephant’s seed – in hopes of reintroducing “tusker genetics” if necessary in future.
The good news from the Great Elephant Census is that it has raised awareness of those areas that need the most pressure and support to crack down on illegal poaching. As well as this, it revealed some places that were doing a much better job protecting the animals and their habitat, including Kenya, where former poachers have been hired as park rangers to defend elephants. Faced with the strong possibility of losing elephants to extinction, action is needed globally to put a stop to the ivory trade and it’s in our power to make this happen by cutting demand and raising awareness, particularly with big consumers like China.
Ivory poachers are not the only danger faced by elephants today, and groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Born Free need support more than ever to create a safe world where elephants can live in harmony with humans, tusks and all.
Lead image source: Mr Max/Shutterstock