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Anthropocene Reporter: The Power of Poaching

It’s hardly a secret these days that elephant populations around the world are threatened by rampant, and increasing, poaching. With more dramatic advertisements and shocking statistics emerging daily, the onslaught of Chinese market-driven demand has made elephants a fixture in the conservation headlines.

Of course, they are hardly unique as ecological victims of human behavior (look to the dodo bird, the gray wolf in Yellowstone Park, or some of the other 7,678 threatened species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List for reference). So what is an animal to do these days when faced with a buffet of threats, ranging from the persistent (habitat degradation) to the novel (systematic harvesting)?

Elephants seem to have an answer, via an artificial evolutionary path, in the face of the immense pressure many populations have come under in recent years from the growing poaching crisis. As African elephants have seen their numbers decline by as much as 100,000 over the last three years, a growing portion of the survivors have a distinct commonality: tusklessness.

Tusklessness has typically been a rarer genetic oddity for African elephants, with natural occurrence somewhere between two to five percent in an average population, and for good reason, too. Elephants use their tusks for a range of behaviors and activities, from facilitating their feeding on tree bark to acting in defensive maneuvers to protect calves from predators. Tusks come in handy during times of drought when they are used to dig into sediments to reach groundwater, and for males in sparring over mating privileges during musth. Most ecologists who have studied elephants, notably Cynthia Moss in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, have pondered the reason for this trait given the disadvantages a tuskless elephant faces. 

Up until now, any advantages of tusklessness were yet unknown—until poaching selection revealed an unforeseeable benefit to the lucky tuskless few: they survive. Elephant population surveys across Africa have revealed new lower trends in tusk occurrence in “survivor” populations compared to elephants less affected by poaching pressures. Indeed, studies taken up at Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa and South Luangwa National Park in Zambia have both noted the increasing frequency of tusklessness in their resident elephant populations.

Previous studies have observed tuskless females becoming more common in South Luangwa. H. Jachmann has recorded tuskless females increasing their portion of the population from less than 10 percent to 38 percent over twenty-years in South Luangwa, as poaching has become increasingly aggressive since the 1980s.

Similarly, Addo’s elephant populations have been subject to bottlenecks throughout the twentieth century, starting with a mere 11 elephants, five of them tuskless, in the park at its founding in 1931. From those original 11 exists a population of more than 400 elephants today with an incidence of more than 98 percent tusklessness in the female population.

This case of genetic drift, where the prevalence of traits in a population change over time, was not wrought by the typical random culprits of disease or freak weather incident. Humans now wield evolutionary influence over much of the world’s species. It is our demand for ivory hankos (Chinese signature seals), ivory-handled weapons and elephant-shaped ivory trinkets that drives these changes in elephants.

It’s a thrilling discovery to find that potentially significant changes to a species are occurring over a mere century or so. We now wield evolutionary-scale power, the very same force that yielded all of Darwin’s famous finch species in the Galapagos has created and destroyed many thousands of species over Earth’s long history.

It’s also a pretty frightening revelation. If you weren’t quite convinced of the concept behind the Anthropocene, a popular term given to the era of human environmental interference, the elephant presents strong evidence. The fact that such a charismatic species is undergoing artificial selection under our eyes, and at our hands, is significant in and of itself. The loss of the elephant species’ tusks is not merely a dramatic change to the symbol of the elephant, it is the mark of the devastating and profound impact humans are having on our planet, and the uncertain path ahead for all species. 

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