by Shenali Boteju
For years, elephants have been hunted and killed for their tusks which is a rich source of ivory. Our idea of elephant tusks is limited to the basic knowledge that they are nothing more than elongated incisors which enhances the beauty and majesty in these gentle giants. But did you know that each kilo of raw ivory is worth around 750 US dollars? It’s practically a waiting temptation for poachers looking to make quick money on the black market.
Typically, the trade of ivory is deemed to be illegal, because behind each piece of ivory is a dead elephant. The main targets are elderly elephants who carry the genes of large tusks; the bigger and heavier the tusk, the higher the price it would fetch at the black market. As a result of this, studies have shown that there has been a decline in the number of elephants being born with tusks, typically in females. This can be attributed to natural selection and the evolution of elephants in response to the increased slaughter of their kind for their tusks. On the other hand, being born with large tusks is hereditary, and thus, it’s also given that there would be an increase in the percentage of elephants who are born tuskless or with smaller tusks if the elephants carrying the strain of large tusks are being hunted. While this a plus point for the survival of elephants, there is also a school of argument on the consequences of being born without tusks.
While it is observed that mainly female elephants are born tuskless, it is not entirely uncommon for even males to be born with no tusks. However, this can prove to be extremely detrimental for males as they use their tusks to fight other males to access females or to defend their territory. As a result of this, there is a higher risk of male elephants being severely wounded. This is especially concerning if they need to protect themselves against a predator. While elephants have the advantage of size, they do heavily depend on their tusks as a defence mechanism, and if they are unable to do this, it could even prove to be fatal because it wouldn’t take that long for a pack of lions to bring down an exhausted and wounded elephant.
It also helps to protect their trunk, which is one of the most vital and sensitive of all organs. It is common knowledge that elephants use their trunks as a ‘finger’ to wrap around and tug out grass when they feed. The tusks therefore act as a protective shield to pry off any attacks or blows to their trunks while they engage in fights. A maimed trunk will certainly amount to be a hindrance to an elephants’ feeding habits. Elephants also use their tusks as a tool for foraging or debarking trees to secure themselves food. This supports the view that an elephant’s tusks directly contribute to their access to food, and an elephant that cannot feed itself is as good as a dead elephant.
Let’s also not forget that elephants use their tusks for various other tasks in their day to day lives such as digging holes for water, essentially during droughts and for lifting heavy branches and trees to clear paths through the forest.
In conclusion, we could concur that while being born tuskless is in fact helpful in a way for elephants to escape being poached, it is most certainly a handicap that would affect an elephant’s habits of survival and access to basic needs such as food and water.
Curious Kids: why do elephants have tusks?
Elephants are evolving to be tuskless after decades of poaching pressure | CBC Radio
Going Tuskless | African Wildlife Foundation
What is ivory and why does it belong on elephants? | Stories | WWF
Under poaching pressure, elephants are evolving to lose their tusks