Elephants' Answer; Born without Tusks: How Nature Is Giving Proud Creatures a Chance against the Ivory Hunters

Article excerpt


HUNTED to the brink of extinction, the African elephant is making a dramatic comeback - thanks to an amazing example of nature's adaptability.

It is the elephant's tusks that have been its downfall. Ivory, once prized as highly as gold, is still a commodity to kill for.

So many elephants have been massacred by poachers that in the African bush the very balance of nature has come under threat.

But now the poachers are being foiled by nature. A genetic reaction to years of slaughter is producing a dramatic increase in the number of elephants born without tusks.

For the poachers, no tusks means no profit, and no reason to kill. Thus, tuskless elephants survive and increase their numbers; those with tusks continue to diminish.

It is the elephant's way of saving itself from extinction - and they are already being allowed to trumpet their success.

The natural fightback against decades of illegal and uncontrolled poaching has brought about a remarkable recovery in once-dwindling numbers.

At one national park in Uganda, for example, there were 3,500 elephants in 1963. Thirty years later there were just 200. Today the population is 1,200 and growing rapidly.

Throughout Africa there are now an estimated 600,000 animals, an increase of at least 100,000 on numbers in 1989, when a worldwide ban on trading in ivory was introduced in a bid to thwart the poachers.

There is an unknown cost. The primary functions of the tusk, which are elongated incisor teeth, are to help the elephant feed and protect itself. No one knows for certain how the animals will cope without tusks.

But as one zoologist put it yesterday, it's a small price to pay for insurance against a bullet in the head.

The tuskless phenomenon has been chronicled by researchers at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

A survey in 1930 recorded that only one per cent of elephants were without tusks, as a result of a rare genetic mutation.

Now Dr Eve Abe, a Cambridge-educated elephant specialist with the Government of Uganda,

says that 15. …