Tuskless Elephants in Africa

Big Tusker, Tuskless elephants in Africa

Tuskless elephants in Africa is increasing. The iconic feature of elephants is their large off-white tusks of varying sizes. These off-white ivory tusks are not only part of their uniqueness, but they perform a vital part of their survival. Both male and female African Elephants have tusks. However, only Asian male elephants have tusks.

A beautiful pair of tusks, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
A beautiful pair of tusks, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
What are tusks?

Tusks are elongated incisor teeth that grow out from an elephant’s mouth. Embedded deeply in the elephant’s skull is the internal part of the tooth. A tusk consists of nerves, bony tissue and blood vessels. The outer coating is hard enamel to withstand harsh wear and tear. If a tusk is damaged or broken, it usually heals over time. Tusks grow throughout an elephants life. Most elephants will have an initial set of tusks for the first year of their life, known as milk tusks. By one year of age, they grow a second pair of tusks which will be their permanent set. A single tusk from a fully grown elephant can weigh as much as 60 kg. To remove an elephant tusk, it must be carved out of an elephant’s skull. Consequently, it means killing an elephant first.

Big tusker, Masai Mara, Tuskless Elephants in Africa
Big tusker, Masai Mara, Kenya
Tusks are vital for elephants’ survival

Elephant tusks are vital for daily living, such as digging for water, minerals, and salt from the ground. Additionally, they use their tusks for debarking trees for necessary fibrous food, helping males win over females, protecting their trunks, and protection against predators, such as lions. Tusks also aid in clearing trees and branches, which creates habitats for other animals. Female elephants also prefer to mate with male elephants with more prominent tusks. Tuskless males are at a significant disadvantage. Males require tusks for fighting and winning over females.

This female elephant has obviously lost one of her tusks. It was so amazing to watch how she has learned to kneel down, use her trunk and strip bark of a fallen tree branch. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe. 

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
This female elephant has lost one of her tusks. It was amazing to watch how she learned to kneel, use her one tusk to hold the branch and use her trunk to strip the bark off a fallen tree. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Elephants eat bark from trees as a vital food source. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Tuskless Elephants in Africa
Elephants eat bark from trees as a vital food source. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Tusks are a liability

Elephant tusks are a liability for elephants. Furthermore, elephants with large tusks have an increased chance of being killed. In addition, poachers kill around 20,000 elephants annually for their tusks, traded illegally on the international black market. Ivory sells for around U$D1800 per kg, equating to U$D18,000 per elephant.

Advantage of a tuskless elephant

Ultimately, the only benefit of being a tuskless elephant is that you are not a target for poachers or trophy hunters!

Mother with calf holding on to her back leg.  Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Tuskless Elephants in Africa
Tuskless mother with calf holding on to her back leg. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Tusklessness is evolving

There is a growing trend of tuskless elephants in Africa. The increase is due to ivory poaching. As a result, the significant tusk gene is disappearing, an evolutionary response to poaching. This revolutionary response is called “artificial selection”, as humans have caused it. There is also an increase in female and male elephants with smaller tusks.

A herd of tuskless elephants, Masai Mara, Kenya.

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
A herd of tuskless elephants, Masai Mara, Kenya.
Impacts of tusklessness

Studies have shown tusklessness in elephants occurs more commonly in females. Also, tuskless elephants adapt to life successfully without tusks. However, they can still strip the bark off trees using their trunks. They will also use their teeth and find trees that are easier to strip. In addition, they tend to have more extensive home ranges than other elephants as they need to find recoverable food sources.

Another critical point is that other animals depend on elephants with tusks. For example, elephants with tusks play a vital role for other species. They use their tusks to clear land, thereby creating habitats for other animals and digging holes to access water that different animals depend on. 

Without tusks, males are at an increased risk of being wounded. In addition, males may become more aggressive and cannot fight for females during mating season. However, females do not seem to be disadvantaged without tusks apart from producing calves that carry the tuskless gene trait. 

A family of elephants, only one has tusks.  Tanzania

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
A family of elephants, only one has tusks. Tanzania.

Females naturally seek out a suitable mate who will have larges tusks. If none are available, they are limited to smaller tusked males or no tusks. Potentially this leads to offspring with either smaller or no tusks.

Therefore, ongoing research continues to monitor tuskless elephants to see any long-term impact on their lives.  

research statistics on tuskless elephants in Africa

Many elephants in Africa are born tuskless or with smaller tusks in heavily hunted and poached areas. Multiple studies have highlighted male elephants born after 1995 have tusks that were 21% smaller and female elephant tusks that were 27% smaller.

During the Civil War in Mozambique between 1977 – 1992, elephants in Gorongosa National Park were brutally hunted and killed by soldiers for meat to feed troops and ivory tusks to cover weapons costs. Tuskless females were not targeted and therefore survived to breed. 

Currently, the elephant population in Gorongosa is around 800 individuals, 150 of whom are male. The remainder is female. The younger females are approximately 15 – 25 years old, born after the civil war. A third are tuskless because their parents no longer carry the tusk gene.

In Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, there is an increase in female tusklessness. In 1969 it was 10.6%, and by 1989 the number rose to 38.2%. 

Also, in Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve (Tanzania), Queen Elizabeth National Park (Uganda), extensive elephant ivory poaching occurred. As a result, it showed that 35% of elephants over the age of 25 are now tuskless. 

In addition, in Addo National Park, South Africa, approximately 98% of female elephants were tuskless due to the extensive tusk poaching in 1931. As a result, only 11 elephants survived, four of which were tuskless. 

Between 2007 and 2014, around one-third of African elephants were killed for their ivory tusks. Countries that had the highest elephant deaths were Cameroon (83%), Mozambique (32%), Angola (30%) and Tanzania (26%).

In Kenya, where there was significant elephant poaching, elephants were born and only grew small tusks. Their tusks were around 1/5th smaller in males and 1/3rd smaller in females.

Confiscated elephant tusks, Kenya (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
Confiscated elephant tusks, Kenya (photo courtesy of Reuters).
The Ivory/Elephant Tusk Trade Market History

The ivory poaching market in Africa has been prolific. With an elephant population of around 26 million in the 1800s, hunting and poaching significantly affected the elephant population. By the mid 20th century, there were less than one million elephants in Africa. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the ivory trade in 1989. As a result, the elephant population declined to around 415,000 left in the wild. Despite the ban, illegal elephant and ivory trafficking continue, uncontrolled and widespread. Poachers get U$D70/kg. Many countries do not have the resources to protect their elephants from poaching. Most ivory demand originates from Asian countries due to people viewing ivory trinkets and ornaments as status symbols. It isn’t proving easy to convince people otherwise. However, no elephants will be left in the wild in the next 30 years unless elephant poaching ceases. 

An array of ivory trinkets, it is too hard to imagine how many elephants had to die for these! (photo courtesy of WWF).

Tuskless Elephants in Africa
With an array of ivory trinkets, it is too hard to imagine how many elephants had to die for these! (photo courtesy of WWF).
What can we do to help prevent tuskless elephants in africa?

As individuals, we can make a difference by not buying animal products, particularly things made from ivory.

For every trinket sold means a dead elephant






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