On Assignment: Poaching Making Tuskless Elephants More Common

Tuskless African elephant. Photo by Teddy Fotiou.
Tuskless African elephant. Image: Teddy Fotiou.

Fewer African animals are more iconic than elephants. Lumbering across the scorching savannas and plodding through the thirsty forests, these mammals are the biggest terrestrial animals on Earth, and their physical features set them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Yet, of all their features, elephant’s tusks are among their most noteworthy. They use these elongated teeth to dig for water, salt, and roots; debark or mark trees; move trees and branches; and fight other elephants. They even have dominate tusks, just like how we might be left-handed or right-handed, and tend to wear that one down first.

Unfortunately, elephants’ tusks have also made them into prime targets for poachers, and their numbers have massively declined since the 1980s. In 1979, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million in 37 range states, but by 1989, only 600,000 remained.

In a more specific example, in the 1970s in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, elephant populations once exceeded 100,000, and massive herds cleared entire forests and hindered vehicle passage. Yet, in the 1980s, poachers and hunters secretly killed elephants for their ivory and severely crippled elephant numbers. By the 1990s, there were less than 10,000 elephants in the South Luangwa Valley.

Old tuskless elephant matriarch. Photo by Teddy Fotiou.
Old tuskless elephant matriarch. Image: Teddy Fotiou.

Because of this mass slaughter of elephants for their tusks, populations of tuskless elephants increased. In South Luangwa National Park, tuskless female elephants increased from 10.5% in 1969 to 38.2% in 1989. In parts of Africa where elephant populations are under heavy pressure and/or tusked elephants are breeding with tuskless ones, these numbers could increase to as much as 60%.

Today, African elephant populations are at their lowest numbers in history. According to the Great Elephant Census, elephant populations have declined to approximately 353,000 individuals across the African continent. Obviously, this does not bode well for the future of Earth’s largest terrestrial mammal, and the modern ivory trade is to blame.

China has been a primary contributor to the resurgence of the illegal ivory trade, and 70% of African elephant ivory is currently flowing to China. However, this will change in the near future. China is planning to ban the ivory trade by the end of 2017. This should be a total a game-changer, and elephant populations will have a better opportunity to recover, although they are still far from safe.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, in South Luangwa National Park, the elephant populations are stable and rising slightly thanks to anti-poaching efforts from organizations like Zambian based Conservation South Luangwa, Bushcamp Company, Department of National Parks and Wildlife and US efforts by Dazzle Africa.

Please visit Conservation South Luangwa and Dazzle Africa’s websites and donate, so that these impactful organizations may continue their work! And, if you’d like to see wild African elephants in their natural habitat, we highly recommend checking out the Bushcamp Company’s website and embarking on their unforgettable safaris!

These groups work closely with the  local community and with conservation organisations, such as Conservation South Luangwa and Zambian Carnivore Programme to develop projects that help conserve precious resources, support education, and generate a sustainable source of income to those who live around the Park.

On Assignment articles are exclusive to Roaring Earth and feature content from our very own dedicated nature writers and photographers. This story was covered in the field by Roaring Earth journalist Teddy Fotiou during his trip to the African nation of Zambia.