Decades of poaching and overhunting of large tusked elephants may be leading to generations of elephants with smaller tusks—or no tusks at all
When Mountain Bull and Satao—two of Kenya’s oldest and most famous elephant bulls—were killed by poachers inside two national parks, the deaths sent shock waves through Kenya’s conservation community and around the world. Poached for their enormous ivory tusks, Mountain Bull and Satao should have been well-protected, both by their fame and national park boundaries. Instead, in early May, poachers armed with spears illegally entered Mt. Kenya National Park, killed Mountain Bull, and hauled away his ivory. A few weeks later, poachers breached the border of Tsavo East National Park, killed Satao with a poisoned arrow, and ferried away his tusks.
Where these majestic bulls once roamed for more than four decades—surviving even the ivory wars of the 1970s and 1980s—their carcasses lay still and sprawled in the dirt. With the outpouring of eulogies and tributes that followed their deaths, Mountain Bull and Satao put a face on the tens of thousands of African elephants killed every year whose ivory, in some parts of the world, is worth more than their lives.
“It is an irreparable loss,” says AWF Senior Director of Conservation Science Philip Muruthi. “Not only because two of Kenya’s legends are gone forever, but it’s one more blow to the species as a whole.”
Beyond the loss of two beloved elephants, the deaths of Mountain Bull and Satao may be indicative of a larger tragedy unfolding: an end to the era of big tuskers.
“As the greatest living targets for poachers, great tuskers are extremely rare in Africa today,” says Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and CEO of Save The Elephants, an AWF partner in an ivory demand reduction campaign in Asia, and an authority on the African elephant. “Big elephants carry genes for survival and are preferred by females, living proof that they have been successful to survive so long.”
Douglas-Hamilton adds that if left alone, these big elephants, which typically bear the larger tusks, will father the majority of calves.
Centuries of poaching and overhunting, however, have relentlessly cut down big elephants at the height of their reproductive power, with an observable impact on the size and weight of elephant tusks.
“Unless the relentless pressure against bearing ivory is curbed, the African elephant may easily be reduced both in the weight of ivory and in its overall fitness to survive,” says Douglas-Hamilton. “There is evidence that this has happened already, with mean tusk weights lower today than in Victorian times.”
Tusks are teeth—upper incisors to be exact. During the first year of life, a baby elephant’s tusks will replace his set of milk teeth, extending from a socket in the skull. Prying bark from trees, digging for water or roots, fighting other bulls—elephants’ tusks perform a variety of functions.
According to Dr. Joyce Poole, an elephant ethologist and co-director of ElephantVoices who, as an AWF researcher in the late 1980s, studied the effects of poaching on East Africa’s elephant populations, tusks continue to grow throughout an elephant’s life, becoming longer and thicker generally with age. Male tusks can grow to be seven times the weight of female tusks as they age.
But, given that there is also “genetic variability with regard to tusk length and thickness, with some older males having smaller tusks,” heavy poaching of large-tusked elephants can influence the biology of future generations of elephants, Poole says. “Assuming that poachers select according to tusk size, they will tend to kill older males with very large tusks, thereby taking out of the population of breeding-aged males who also happen to have very big tusks. Those males then no longer pass on their genes for large tusks.”
Poole notes that even if younger, smaller males with the potential to develop large tusks remain in the population, they will not be the primary breeders given that age, body size, and musth—a frenzied, sexually charged state for male elephants during which hormone levels are elevated—determine how often and successfully a male elephant breeds with females.
“When these young males grow older they are killed for their tusks before they reach breeding age,” Poole says. “In this manner, heavy poaching will select out genes for large tusks.”
Smaller tusks are not the only genetic consequence faced by elephant populations in Africa (and Asia) due to heavy poaching. Over several decades, researchers have documented an increase in the percentage of tuskless males and females in a number of elephant populations.
A 2008 paper published in the African Journal of Ecology noted that the number of tuskless female elephants in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and adjacent Lupande Game Management Area had increased from 10.5 percent in 1969 to 38.2 percent in 1989—the peak of the previous ivory wars—largely as a result of illegal hunting for ivory. A 1991 elephant conservation plan in Uganda reported a higher-than-normal percentage of tuskless elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park and singled out poaching as the main cause. Whereas a normal level of tusklessness in an elephant population is somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent, according to the Ugandan report, a 1989 survey of Queen Elizabeth National Park revealed tusklessness in the elephant population to be between 9 percent and 25 percent.
“Elephants carry a sex-linked gene for tusklessness, so in most populations there are always some tuskless elephants,” says Poole. “Because males require tusks for fighting, tusklessness has been selected against in males and very few males are tuskless. For African elephants, tuskless males have a much harder time breeding and do not pass on their genes as often as tusked males.”
In heavily poached populations, says Poole, the ratio of tuskless animals in the population increases as poaching continues.
“Whereas baseline tusklessness in a population might be 4 percent, over time as more and more tusked elephants are killed, the percentage may increase to 60 percent in the older animals,” she explains. “When this group breeds with tuskless females, 50 percent of whose daughters are tuskless, you begin to see the gene for tusklessness spreading in the population. You can see this in almost any population that has experienced a wave of heavy poaching, in Gorongosa [in Mozambique], for example, or Selous [in Tanzania].”
Economic value of teeth
According to a 2014 report released by the UN Environment Programme and Interpol, 1 kg of raw ivory typically sells for US$750. Each of an elephant’s tusks weighs approximately 5.5 kg; hence, ivory taken from the average elephant and sold on the black market in Asia could fetch as much as US$8,000. In some instances, very large tusks and tusk tips have yielded wholesale prices of more than US$1,000 per kg, especially when ivory is in short supply.
“While the illegal ivory trade might enrich a few criminals, it deprives elephant range countries and their people of billions of dollars in revenue through the tourism industry,” says AWF’s Muruthi.
In Kenya, where Satao and Mountain Bull were killed, tourism revenue contributes 20 percent to the national GDP. For those tourists on safari in Kenya hoping to see Africa’s Big Five, seeing an elephant in the wild, especially one with large, imposing tusks, is a must on the checklist. But with 302 of Kenya’s elephants cut down by poachers last year, spotting the big-tusked elephant on the savanna may become increasingly rare in the not-so-distant future.
“In many ways, elephant poaching is not just a wildlife crime but a crime of economic sabotage,” remarks Muruthi.
One might go a step further and contend that wiping out elephants—be they big tuskers or not—amounts to ecological sabotage as well. Elephants perform an important role in the ecosystem, as landscape architects—pushing down trees, establishing trails, and creating new patches of grassland for other wildlife—and as biotic agents that disperse seeds long distances through dense forests and across the savanna
“There is an ecological reason AWF focuses its species conservation efforts so much on megafauna like the elephant,” Muruthi explains. “If elephant populations are doing well within a given habitat, it tends to have positive trickle-down benefits for other wildlife in the ecosystem.”
Armed to the teeth
When it comes to protecting Africa’s elephants from poachers and the demands of the ivory market, most countries, law enforcement agencies, wildlife authorities, and the wider conservation community know what needs to be done. It boils down to this: stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand. In other words, stop the poachers on the ground with more anti-poaching patrols, increased security around protected areas, and strong judicial action against convicted poachers and traffickers. Stop wildlife traffickers in their tracks with improved security at ports of entry, better training of customs and border agents, and increased law enforcement coordination between countries. And stop the demand with very visible, very targeted, and very large public awareness campaigns in consumer nations, especially in Asia, where the greatest demand for ivory stems.
For its part, AWF is addressing all three of these areas, and no more so than on the ground, where it is partnering with a variety of groups to bolster security around vulnerable elephant populations. In southern Kenya, AWF and Big Life Foundation have trained community scouts to conduct anti-poaching patrols in community areas outside of Amboseli National Park and are working with a Tanzanian-based NGO, Honeyguide Foundation, to coordinate transborder patrols. In those areas where AWF and its partners are working, elephant poaching has been drastically reduced, in some places to zero.
In addition, AWF is hosting workshops for local magistrates, lawyers, customs and border agents, revenue authorities, local police, and local communities who are learning for the first time about the breadth of the elephant crisis and the new wildlife laws designed to combat it.
“It is important that the implications for Kenya’s new wildlife act are made known and that collaboration between different groups is fostered to minimize poaching,” says AWF Kilimanjaro Landscape Manager Noah Sitati. “This will ensure all the loopholes are sealed and all wildlife criminals are caught and punished according to the law.”
Elsewhere on the continent, AWF’s support of a local conservation group in Zambia conducting foot and aerial patrols in and around Lower Zambezi National Park has reduced elephant poaching by half in the area. In Cameroon, where in 2012 hundreds of elephants were slaughtered en masse inside a national park on the border, AWF is now working with the national park authority to provide anti-poaching patrols and faunal surveys in Faro National Park.
Concludes Muruthi: “We need demand-reduction campaigns and we need better law enforcement of trade routes and ports, but above all we need African governments to prioritize better security on the ground around all of our elephants, whether they have big tusks, small tusks, or no tusks. Many governments are stepping up to the fight and AWF is ready to assist them.”