By Mikey Jones
A herd of elephants which survived intense ivory hunting have given birth to daughters without tusks – protecting them from poaching.
The 600-strong group of mammals live in the sprawling Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, once home to 2,500 African elephants.
But shockingly, 90 per cent of the park’s elephants were killed for their ivory during Mozambique’s 16-year Civil War – with their ivory used to finance weapons.
Now, scientists have noticed the surviving elephants – whose population at one point dwindled to less than 200 – appear to have passed a tuskless trait onto their babies to protect them from harm.
Incredible images of the herd show many of the mammals have no tusks at all or much smaller tusks than usual – with the parents passing on this trait making the babies less of an attraction to poachers.
Ordinarily, both male and female African elephants are born with ivory tusks which can grow up to 10ft in length.
Dominique D’Emille Correia Gonçalves, a PhD student from the University of Kent, is part of a team of scientists investigating the findings.
The 26-year-old ecologist and conservation biologist said: “Ivory poaching targets big tusked animals, so it removes the ‘big tusk’ gene out of the population.
“Our elephants are special in a physical way, because a big percentage of the females in the population are tuskless.
“The elephant population today is derived from most of the elephants who survived the war, where they were heavily poached for their tusks.
“The key explanation is that in Gorongosa National Park, the tuskless elephants were the ones which eluded poaching during the civil war and therefore passed this trait onto many of their daughters.
“These tuskless elephants are growing from the survivors of poaching so while we are not talking about evolution yet, we could be talking about the removal of certain genes from the population.”
Many of the female elephants have also developed what has been described as a ‘culture of aggression’, which could have come about from the need to defend their young from poachers.
The experts believe the strange behaviour – which sees them have a particularly low tolerance to vehicles and people, reacting angrily – could also be linked to the animals not having tusks.
Dominique, who is also manager of the Elephant Ecology Project, added: “Our elephants are special in a physical and behavioural way – they have low tolerance to vehicles and people.
“The behaviour our elephants display is intriguing – it has been described by Poole and Granli as a ‘culture of aggression’.
“This is a big change, as anedoctal records from people that have been in Gorongosa before the war suggest the family units used to be calm and almost indifferent to people presence.
“Many of the matriarchs and lead females of the family units were alive during the slaughter and saw their families and friends being hunted.
“They are survivors and the trauma is still present, which would explain such intolerance to humans.
Scientists are now monitoring the elephants by attaching GPS satellite collars to 10 females from different family units.
Dominique said: “It is difficult to tell if the elephants previously would have had tusks, as many of the tuskless matriarchs we see today are survivors.
“Further studies are needed to answer most of these questions.
“To know more about this intriguing characteristics, we are now conducting genetic studies of our elephant population to understand if there is a behavioural syndrome that could be identified.
“If so, we will want to know what defines the syndrome and how this behaviour – which appears to have emerged from tusklessness – can relate to the elephants’ role in the ecosystem.”