Recently while procrastinating homework and scrolling through Instagram, I came across a picture of an elephant, to which my first response was, “oh, cute!” Then I read the associated caption, which talked about how, due to excessive poaching, many African elephants are evolving to be born without tusks — also known as “naturally tuskless.”
This is horrifying to think about on multiple levels. Although this change in the genetics of elephants may seem beneficial to them at first glance because it puts them at a lower risk of being hunted, there is a much deeper issue. This is a harmful mutation in their genetics that is lethal to male elephants, and is thus likely to have long term effects on the African elephant population.
Normally, both male and female African elephants are born with tusks made of ivory, and thus valued by poachers. When these elephants are hunted for their ivory, they are often unable to pass down their genes to future generations, making it more likely for tuskless elephants to pass down their genes.
This has its own problems, genetically speaking. When female elephants are born tuskless, there is a variation on one of their two X chromosomes that gives male offspring a 50/50 chance to inherit this variation. Male elephants that receive this mutated X chromosome are unable to survive. Although this genetic variation may be helpful for female elephants — a study showed that over a 28-year period, female tuskless elephants were five times more likely to survive than female elephants with tusks — it is lethal to the male elephant population.
Poaching elephants for their ivory is horrible and has great consequences for their species and the environment around them. Despite the 1989 ban on the international ivory trade, as of 2015, 35,000 and 50,000 African elephants were reported being poached yearly. As of March 2021, it was estimated that only 415,000 elephants remain on the entire continent of Africa. The species is endangered, with the most prominent cause being poaching for ivory. This issue cannot be taken lightly.
On the black market, a pound of ivory costs about $1,500 per pound, with tusks from male elephants weighing about 250 pounds each. Therefore, the monetary value of ivory drives many of these poachers, regardless of the risks and detrimental effects.
Elephant poaching has immense effects on the ecosystem and the environment as a whole. Elephant manure, for example, helps fertilize soil that helps plant crops, and elephants play large parts in seed dispersal as well. When elephants are poached to the degree that they have been throughout history, it compromises their own population as well as the surrounding ecosystem, including the lives of many humans.
The importance of elephants in the environment and the greater ecosystem must be understood and widely known. Poaching has gone too far, endangering the elephants themselves as well as the environment around them, which includes other animals and humans.
In order to ensure that elephants are not poached for ivory, other measures must be taken. For example, synthetic ivory could have immense benefits to elephant populations and the environment as a whole. However, this would require immense research and funding to ensure the synthetic ivory is similar enough to real ivory and so that its prices are affordable enough to discourage people from poaching.
There should be more research, time, effort and funding put into this issue to protect elephants and to cease poaching altogether. The consequences of not doing so are far too great for elephants and for the greater environment.