Thanks to intensive poaching, African elephants are being born without tusks. Because poachers have systematically targeted elephants with the largest tusks, they have been removing the big-tusk genes from the gene pool, and only tuskless, and small-tusked elephants have been able to breed freely. This means that in some regions, almost all newborn females come into the world without tusks.
It's an incredibly fast demonstration of "natural" selection at work. Normally, only 2% to 6% of Africa's elephants are born tuskless. Now, according to head of the Elephant Voices charity Joyce Poole, in some regions 98% of female elephants have no tusks. And this mutation might be the thing that saves the species.
Pool told the Independent that she has seen a direct correlation between poaching and the rise of elephants without tusks. Between 1977 and 1992, she says, 90% of elephants in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique were killed. Because all of the animals killed were targeted for their tusks, only half the surviving females have tusks. This has led to a leap in the number of tuskless newborns. "30 percent of female elephants born since the end of the [civil] war also do not have tusks," says the Independent.
Not only that, but the elephants that tusked elephants have smaller tusks than they did historically.
It's a small win for elephants. Poachers, who supply the predominantly Asian market, are sure to move on to targeting elephants with smaller and smaller tusks, and perhaps the rarity will drive the piece up. But if they manage to completely rewrite the gene pool in the process, then perhaps the tuskless African elephant will be able to survive extinction, when there's nothing left for the poachers to hunt. In the meantime, anti-poaching measures like fake tusks with GPS trackers help to fight the slaughter.