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Decades of war leave a lasting mark on the elephant population

By Breanna Lu Dec. 8, 2021

Suvia Li Art

In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, many female African elephants are missing a key feature due to years of conflict and extensive poaching—their tusks. In 1977, two years after Mozambique gained independence from Portugal, a large-scale civil war broke out. To finance the war, over 2,000 elephants were killed for the ivory in their tusks.

As the park’s elephant population recovered in the years following the war, researchers noticed that many of the females were missing tusks: according to the Washington Post, around 50% of the surviving female elephants were tuskless compared to only 18.5% in 1970. Within the elephant population, those that were female and tuskless had a survival advantage, as poachers went after males whose tusks were heavier and worth more money. This tuskless trait was passed on and is expressed in 32% of female elephants in Gorongosa today, stated elephant conservation organization Elephant Voices, a substantial jump from before.

[R]esearchers did not notice any male tuskless elephants

However, researchers did not notice any male tuskless elephants in the park, leading them to believe that the genetic mutation behind tusklessness was fatal to males. To test this theory, evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton of Princeton University and his colleagues analyzed the genomes of African elephants with and without tusks, searching for genetic differences and signs of evolutionary selection. The results of the investigation highlighted AMELX—a dominant, X-linked gene passed from mother to offspring that is lethal to males—and MEP1a, which are genes that build elephant teeth.

While the trait was critical to survival during the war, tusklessness today harms surrounding ecosystems. When elephants use their incisors to dig for water and strip tree bark off for nutrients, they topple trees that become homes for lizards and dig watering holes for other organisms. Thus, restoring the number of tusked elephants is important for ecosystems to thrive.

Tuskless African elephants are just a recent development in a chain of impacts human activity has had on nature.

“Right now, there is a mass extinction of animals and plants. This loss of biodiversity and the change in Gorongosa, are results of artificial selection,” Jessica Paulsen, Science Department, said.

To aid in restoration, China enacted a ban on the global distribution of ivory products in 2017. Since then, the African elephant ivory supply and demand have decreased substantially, reported the World Wildlife Fund.

“In addition to stricter legislation, developing synthetic alternatives to ivory can help curb ivory poaching since it lessens the demand for elephant tusks, as well as spreading awareness about tusklessness,” Junior Michelle Qiao said.

The existence of tuskless elephants is not unique to Gorongsa. National Geographic stated that in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, 98% of female elephants were tuskless as early as the 2000s also due to a history of war fueled by poaching.

Tuskless African elephants are just a recent development in a chain of impacts human activity has had on nature. While it is difficult to reverse the damage already done, these discoveries can bring awareness to animal protection and environmental conservation.


About the Contributors

Breanna Lu

Investigative Report & Last Word Editor

Breanna Lu is a sophomore at Leland High School and the Investigative Report and Last Word page editor. She loves to binge Netflix shows, try out new foods, explore the outdoors, and stargaze.

Suvia Li

Artist & Staff Writer

Suvia Li is a sophomore at Leland High school. She is a staff writer and artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she enjoys cooking, eating, and listening to music.

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