Tag Archives: tusk

Poaching evolution: elephants are evolving to lose their tusks

It would be a remarkable example of evolution if it weren’t so terribly tragic: African elephants are pressured by poachers to become tusk-less.

Evolution is a ruthless process — the individuals better adapted to the environment are more likely to survive and have offspring, which subsequently means that the ones who aren’t as well adapted have lower chances of survival. Typically, evolution happens slowly and is driven by natural factors, but that’s not always the case.

For African elephants, not having tusks can be an evolutionary advantage, because they are less likely to be killed by poachers. This is the conclusion of Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert. Poole told National Geographic that poachers specifically like to target older females, and in that demographic, you really start to see a difference.

Genetically, tusklessness only occurs in 2-4% of female African elephants, but in Mozambique’s war-torn Gorongosa National Park, over 50% of all elderly females have no tusks — and they’re passing their genes on to the younger generations. Almost a third of younger females who were born after the war still have no tusks.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Poaching for tusks” footer=””]Elephant tusks are essentially overgrown teeth. They have a multitude of uses, including defense, offense, digging, lifting objects, gathering food, and stripping bark to eat from trees. Elephants also use their tusks as digging and boring tools, especially during the dry season, when they are looking for water.

For centuries, humans have used tusks to create ivory, which is a valuable commodity in some markets. This has led to the overhunting of many tusked species, including elephants, bringing them to the brink of extinction. [/panel]

This trend of tusklessness hasn’t only been observed in Mozambique. Josephine Smit, who studies elephant behavior as a researcher with the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program, says that many of the female elephants she is observing are tuskless — far more than what you’d expect under normal circumstances.

Poaching also reduces tusk size, a recent study concluded. Elephants in heavily poached areas tend to have smaller and lighter tusks, driven by a similar mechanism. Other studies have also revealed that hunting elephants is having a massive impact on their tusk evolution.

However, the one silver lining is that the tuskless elephants appear to be well and healthy.

Yet even if losing their tusks is nothing more than a significant discomfort, the lack of tusks would change how they behave, in ways that are not yet known. They may cover a larger range to look for food and water, to compensate for their inability to dig holes or access some food sources. This, in turn, could have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem. Some lizards, for instance, make their home in holes dug by elephants, or in trees felled by them. This change in behavior could place additional pressures not only on elephants but on a wide array of creatures.

Researchers are now working to better understand the implications of this unfortunate phenomenon.


Walrus upper jaw bone.

Ivory trade made Greenland great, then barren again

The secret of Greenland’s quick rise to prominence, as well as its rapid decline, may have been walrus tusks.

Walrus head.

Image via Wikipedia.

Sometime in the late 10th century in Iceland, one Erik Thorvaldsson was having a pretty bad day.

Born in Norway, Erik and his family were forced to flee to Iceland after his father committed “some killings“. Erik was about 10 years old when this happened but, he realized today, he didn’t take the lesson to heart. Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik had also committed manslaughter — and was now forced into exile from Iceland.

This paternal murderous streak, however, would echo through time and help shape the destiny of Europe’s northern countries.

“Looks green to me!”

Erik sailed with his family and slaves, intent on finding his fortune on the wild shore to the southwest of Iceland. Icelandic Sagas hold that he christened the massive island Grœnland (‘Greenland’) and stayed there — thus creating the first Norse settlement on Greenland.

Nestled in the frigid waters between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, however, Greenland is decidedly un-green. Historians are still split on whether the lands were lusher back in the days of the Vikings, or whether Erik simply had a knack for PR campaigns and an interest in tempting new immigrants into sailing over.

What we do know is that it worked. People sailed in and by the mid-12th century, Greenland could boast two major towns, a population of several thousand, and even its own bishop. This rapid ascent was followed by a dizzying drop: by the 15th century, Greenland was virtually devoid of Norsemen, ruins of their settlements peeking out of snow across the land.

How these colonies developed and declined so fast has long fascinated historians. One theory proposed that a change in climate patterns, coupled with antiquated farming technology, made it impossible for the Greenland Norse to feed their population — so they left. One other holds that the Greenland Norse never really farmed much, but sustained their population by trading commodities with Europe. Walrus tusks were a particularly sought-after commodity in the time, and Erik’s frozen island was rich in walruses. When trade declined, the Norse also faded into history.

Walrus upper jaw bone.

A walrus rostrum (upper jaw bone) with tusks that was used in the study. Dated to c.1200-1400 CE based on the characteristics of a runic inscription in Old Norse.
Image courtesy of Musées du Mans.

This latter hypothesis is further supported by archeological findings in Europe. We’ve found many luxury items — from crucifixes to game pieces — fashioned out of walrus ivory in Europe around this time. However, the theory couldn’t be proved or disproved, as the source of this ivory couldn’t be pinpointed.

New research from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo, however, successfully established the source of this walrus ivory. By studying the DNA in walrus tusks and skulls from ivory workshops across the continent, the team found that Greenland held a “near monopoly” of the ivory supply in Western Europe for over two centuries. The research also revealed an evolutionary split in the walrus, allowing the team to distinguish between ivory sourced from Greenland and that obtained elsewhere.

Tusky business

The team worked with samples of walrus bone and tusk obtained from key medieval trading centers such as Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig, and Sigtuna, dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque from the beginning of the medieval walrus ivory trade; believed to date from the 10th or 11th century. Found in North Elmham, Norfolk, UK.
Image credits Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology / University of Cambridge.

The tusks were exported still attached to the walrus’ skull. They helped protect the ivory during shipping and was later broken up at each workshop. The team extracted DNA from the remains of this process, as to avoid damaging any artifacts. Ivory was carved into luxury goods such as religious objects and game pieces.

DNA analysis revealed that the walrus branched into two lines during the last Ice Age — which researchers term “eastern” and “western”. The eastern lineage spread across much of the Arctic, while the western lineage remained contained in the waters between Canada and Greenland.

The lion’s share of walruses during the early years of the ivory trade came from the eastern lineage, the team reports. As demand soared from the 12th century onwards, however, the supply shifted almost entirely to tusks from the western lineage — namely, from walruses in Greenland. The Norse settlers there either hunted the animals themselves or traded with indigenous populations for the tusks, according to the team.

“The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe — a near monopoly even,” says paper co-author Dr James H. Barrett. “The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.”

“Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church,” he explains.

Europe was faring pretty well from the 11th to the 13th century, and demand for luxury and exotic goods soared. The Greenland Norse cashed in on this, supplying almost all of the ivory in Western Europe during this time. However, craftsmen eventually switched over to elephant ivory — there is virtually no evidence of walrus ivory imports in Europe past the year 1400, the team explains. Left without a market for their single most important export good, the Greenlanders’ economy ground to a halt.

“Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages,” Barrett explains.

“An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability.”

There may have been other factors at work, however. Walrus populations are known to abandon their coastal haulouts due to overhunting. The 14th century also saw the “Little Ice Age“, a sustained period of low temperatures. Finally, Europe was also going through some tough times, as the Black Death plagued the lands.

“Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland,” says co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo.

“Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland.”

The paper “Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Journalist Uses GPS Trackers and Fake Elephant Tusks to Reveal Smuggling Route

Every year, over 30,000 elephants are murdered, slaughtered for their tusks. Ivory is an extremely valuable commodity, and many people will stop at nothing to get it and sell it. With this in mind, investigative journalist Bryan Christy set out to see what the smuggling route is, so he commissioned a taxidermist to create two fake ivory tusks, which he embedded with GPS trackers.

Image via Doubtful News.

“These tusks … operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a robocop,” Christy said in an interview.

Between 2010 and 2012, over 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa, a study found. China is the biggest market for illegal ivory, and despite some efforts and new DNA tracking technology, things aren’t looking too good.

“China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory. … Just a few years ago [China] purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa, and it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory is on the market again,” he says.

Image credits: Brent Stirton.

Christy and his team managed to track the smugglers as they transported the tusks north from Congo’s Garamba National Park to Sudan. Much of the ivory ends up in the Darfur area of Sudan before heading for China. His article about tracking the ivory of African elephants is the cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s September 2015 issue. The National Geographic Channel documentary Warlords of Ivory also reports on his efforts.

The brutality of the poachers is without limits. They’re killing animals in every manner conceivable: using AK-47s, poisoning waterholes, using poison spears, poison arrows; and it’s not just the elephants getting killed: in 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers.

But just as guilty are the people driving up the demand: they are the real problem, for without them, a market wouldn’t exist, and poachers would have no reason to poach. If you know someone who owns or would like to own ivory, do talk to them about this problem and let them know how it is actually obtained.

100,000 elephants killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012, study finds

Elephant numbers are dwindling, with over 100.000 elephants being killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012. Image via AP.

Most societies in Africa are leading an uphill battle in their attempt to ensure safety, good health and food security. But for African animals, it’s even worse. Poachers alone killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012, raising new concerns about the species’ survival.

Poaching in Africa is huge – the term ‘crisis’ has rarely been used more appropriately. The unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatens to overturn what conservation efforts were slowly starting to achieve in the past decades. For example, although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, and due to this, rhinos are now on the brink of extinction. Recent estimates show that if current trends continue, rhinos could go extinct by 2020. Let me phrase that in a different way, so you can get a better sense of the absurdity – one of the world’s most iconic species will likely go extinct in our lifetime, for a “medicinal” property which it doesn’t even have! The Western Black Rhino is was already driven to extinction, and soon, its relatives could follow.

WIldAid teamed up with Chinese basketball player Yao Ming for this campaign against ivory trade.

As you will probably guess, elephants are hunted for the ivory. Again, we’re dealing with one of the most iconic and well known species on the face of the Earth. A species known for its intelligence, kindness and ability to cooperate is being wiped out to be old as body parts, mostly on the Chinese black market. While the rhino horn has reached a mind blowing price of $30,000 per pound (almost $14,000 per kilo), ivory is estimated at $1,000 per pound (over $2,000 per kilo) – a huge price, especially when considering that no one actually needs an elephant’s tusk – except himself.

Warnings about massive elephant slaughters have been going on for years and years now, but until now, there has been no study to quantify the effects of massive poaching. Keep in mind, poaching in Africa is not one or a few guys with guns going out to kill elephants. Poaching has become so organized and well funded, that we’re talking about well organized criminal organizations and even militia. The study found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed from 25 percent of all elephant deaths a decade ago to roughly 65 percent of all elephant deaths today, a trend which if continued, will lead to the complete wipe of the species. All in all, they found that over 100.000 elephants have been killed between 2010 and 2012, and the number is continuously growing.

Two-month-old orphaned baby elephant Ajabu is given a dust-bath in the red earth after being fed milk from a bottle by a keeper, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. A new study released Monday Aug. 18, 2014, by lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University, found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed to about 65 percent of all elephant deaths. Image via AP.

It’s estimated that there are as many as 700,000 elephants in Africa, but this is the total of two different species: the African bush elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. However losing either, but especially both, would be a major loss to the ecosystems and tourist economies throughout Africa. Unfortunately, the numbers for the Asian elephant are much smaller.

“The current demand for ivory is unsustainable. That is our overarching conclusion. It must come down. Otherwise the elephants will continue to decrease,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.

Early this year, nearly 450 elephants were slaughtered in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, representing close to 10% of the country’s remaining elephant population, but that’s nothing! Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve dropped from 40,000 to 13,000 over the last three years. Botswana seems to be the only place where elephant populations have maintained stable or increased, but that’s only because poachers haven’t yet started their activities there – which they almost definitely will in the near future.

As mentioned earlier, China is the main demand market for the ivory. Chinese Ambassador in Kenya Liu Xianfa is aware of this, and he claims efforts are being made to limit the damage.

“Wildlife crimes are a cross-border menace,” Liu said, according to a transcript of the ceremony published by Kenya’s Capital FM. “I assure you that more action will follow as will support to fulfil our promise. We firmly believe that, through joint efforts, the drive of combating wildlife crimes will achieve success.”

In this Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, a Maasai boy and his dog stand near the skeleton of an elephant killed by poachers outside of Arusha, Tanzania. Image via AP.

Even though elephant numbers are plummeting, researchers are still optimistic. They say that where conservation efforts have been thoroughly planned an implemented, the results are visible. Sadly, it’s almost certain that more and more elephants will be killed, but the species has good chances of survival lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University believes:

“I have to be an optimist,” he said. “I’ve been through all of this before in the 70s and 80s. As a collective group we stopped that killing, and in the savannahs there was a reprieve of 20 years. I believe we can do it again.”

Elephants also survived a massive poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan fueled the demand for ivory.  In 1989 the Convention of the International Trade of Flora and Fauna (CITES) abandoned attempts at regulation and passed a ban on international trade in ivory. Japan has since greatly reduce its ivory market, and initially, the law was a huge success, but legal ivory sales made way for illegal ivory sales… and here we are.



Tusk DNA tracking to handle illegal trade

International treaties to protect the elephants are not working – that’s the sad truth. There is no real, practical way of enforcing them, and as a result, whatever few elephants are left are still being tracked down and hunted, mostly for their tusks. Researchers estimate that tens of thousands of African elephants are now being killed by poachers each year, from a total wild population of around 400,000.

A bull elephant grazes in South Africa's Kruger National Park

I think tusks look best on elephants… how about we leave them there?

“It doesn’t take much math to show we have a serious, urgent problem,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It’s estimated that a total of 39 tons (!) of illegal ivory were traded worldwide in 2011, with the number constantly growing or at the very best, remaining the same. We have every reason to believe that the number for 2012 will be even bigger than that. Poachers get about US$1,600 per kilogram in the Far East, but that number may very well be higher in other parts of the world. Many measures, plans and etc have been adopted, but so far, there’s been little to no improvement.

“We’re really at a tipping point, I think,” says George Wittemyer, an ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. “We’re seeing declines in the species as a whole and we’re seeing poaching spread into what were once untouchable safe havens.”

Indeed, it’s That is the stark message that Wasser and others will deliver to policy-makers in Bangkok next week, at the triennial conference of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The thing is, it’s almost impossible to get some accurate estimates – because of the sheer size of the elephant territory and the rough conditions there.


So Wasser and his team has developed a map of DNA samples collected across Africa which he plans to use to pinpoint the origin of the ivory, giving a more accurate depiction of where the ivory is coming from. He wants CITES to increase forensic scrutiny of the huge stockpiles of ivory in many African nations, so authorities can know where most of the ivory is coming from and increase efforts in those areas.

“There are probably not as many of these poaching hotspots as people might think.”

Meanwhile, others are working on the matter as well. Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (who demonstrated that in fact, African elephants are two different species) has used mitochondrial DNA to trace ivory hauls – he believes that this could very well complement Wasser’s work.

“It’s very important to source these large-scale ivory seizures. It should be mandated through CITES that there is forensic examination of the shipments so the source can be determined,” says Tom Milliken, the elephant expert at wildlife-trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, which is headquartered in Cambridge, UK. Milliken will be presenting the ETIS data at the Bangkok meeting.

However, nothing is going to work in terms of elephant protection until sanctions aren’t applied to countries illegally exporting ivory.

“We have reached a moment when the threat of sanctions is certainly warranted,” says Milliken.