A FRIGHTFUL FUTURE FOR ELEPHANTS
Happy Halloween, everyone! It’s Caleb again with the Elephant Care Team! With Halloween right around the corner, I must take advantage of the opportunity to discuss something scary … the effect of poaching on African savanna elephants.
Poaching is the illegal killing of an animal in order to possess something “valuable.” And despite a ban on the illegal trade of it, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers for their tusks, or what humans have deemed as “ivory.” And because of it, each year at least 35,000 African elephants – around 96 elephants each day or one every 15 minutes – are killed for their tusks. To such an extreme that African elephants are evolving to have shorter tusks or even no tusks at all.
Elephants are easily identified by their large, wrinkly bodies, big ears, long trunks, and their tusks. An elephant’s tusks are one of the prominent anatomical traits of the species, and in African elephants, both male and females typically have tusks. They use their tusks for many different purposes, including digging wallows, lifting logs, gathering food, stripping bark, sparring with other elephants, and even protecting their trunk like a bumper. Here at Zoo Atlanta, you can regularly see our three elephants using their tusks for various activities – like creating leverage to breaking apart bamboo stalks. And while comparing Kelly, Tara, and Msholo, you will also notice all three of our elephants have varying lengths of tusks! Even though there is normal wear on an elephant’s tusk, which can impact the length and point of their tusks, tusk size in elephants is genetic, like eye color and height are for humans.
In a recent study that examined the impacts of ivory poaching in Gorongosa National Park during the Mozambican Civil War, researchers found that increased poaching of African elephants resulted in smaller-tusked elephants. Warfare is generally associated with increased exploitation and population decline of wildlife, especially in Africa. In Gorongosa National Park, the 15-year Mozambican Civil War reduced large-herbivore populations by over 90%. By continuously removing large-tusked elephants from the population for their “ivory,” only smaller tusked elephants were available to breed and pass on their genetics to the next generation. And due to this, the population of African elephants are now evolving to have smaller tusks due to human-induced reasons.
Elephants are considered keystone species, which means an ecosystem largely depends on them and would be drastically changed or even destroyed if they were removed. With the poaching of wild elephants along with increasing habitat loss, and African savanna elephants categorized as “Endangered” by the IUCN, they are on track for possible extinction. However, there are relevant and important things we can do every day to help African savanna elephants in the wild: (1) Do not support the illegal ivory trade and do not purchase elephant tusk. (2) Support your local accredited zoo, such as Zoo Atlanta, as part of your ticket proceeds will go to conservation in the wild! Zoo Atlanta is conservation partners with Conservation South Luangwa, a Zambia-based organization that actively works to minimize habitat loss and the poaching of African savanna elephants. (3) My personal favorite: learn more about elephants and share what you know! The more you learn, the more you are inspired to care, and the more you care, the more we can do to save elephants together.
Keeper II, Elephants