Tusks serve very important functions for elephants but they are also highly prized by illegal poachers for the ivory trade. These illegal poachers often set upon the elephants and kill them for the sake of their tusks and it seems that tuskless elephants are becoming the evolutionary result of this action.
It is true that spotting evolution can be a pretty tricky activity, however, African elephants have always commonly had a distinct feature; massively overgrown (and ever-growing) teeth known as tusks.
They utilized these large tusks for scraping the bark of trees, uncovering roots and digging for water during dry spells. Male elephants also used it as a weapon in sexual competitions.
Scientists have noticed, however, that elephant populations with a history of poaching show higher than expected rates of small or missing tusks, even in calves born after poaching ends. It may mean that tuskless elephants are arising as an evolutionary response to poaching.
David Coltman, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Alberta seems to agree with that estimation as he states;
“I don’t think it’s a great stretch of the imagination to think that might be true, …What’s difficult is identifying compelling evidence.”
Joyce Poole, co-founder of Elephant Voices (a nonprofit group), has studied African elephants for nearly 40 years and she explains that tuskless elephants are also common in elephant populations but because poaching kills more of the elephants with tusks, more tuskless elephants survive and when they reproduce, their offsprings tend to also be tuskless.
Some scientists, however, feel that even in the presence of severe poaching lasting for several years, tusks in elephants may never disappear as they are much too important to lose.
Eleftheria Palkopoulou, a geneticist at Harvard University said;
“It’s not like tusks are an ornament, they actually have a function that’s very important.”
Another scientist, an ecologist at Chinhoyi University of Technology, in Zimbabwe, points out that losing a tusk really shows out the importance of tusks to the animal’s health and survival.
He pointed out that tuskless males tend to be more aggressive and may be psychologically stressed. He also said that he expects tuskless elephants would be relatively malnourished, more susceptible to disease, and less likely to breed.