Poaching drove the evolution of tusk-free elephants

Image of three elephants

Enlarge (credit: Bisakha Datta / Getty Images)

In the wake of severe poaching problems, some wildlife authorities have resorted to removing the horns of rhinos in order to eliminate the reason they’re poached in the first place. It turns out that, in the wake of a severe poaching event, evolution came up with a similar solution.

A 15-year-long civil war in Mozambique set off a burst of poaching that ultimately killed 90 percent of a national park’s elephant population. In the wake of that, tuskless elephants were seen in the park. That’s surprising, since tusks play an important role in elephants’ foraging and defenses against predators. Now, researchers have revealed that the lack of tusks was the result of genetic changes and have even identified the genes that were likely behind it.

A change of face

Over the course of the Mozambican Civil War, the population of elephants in Gorongosa National Park dropped from 2,542 to just 242. But the remaining population contained a significant number of elephants that lacked tusks. Models of the population and rates of tusklessness suggest that animals without them were roughly five times more likely to survive than their fellows with tusks.

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