At Tsavo Trust, we’re fortunate to witness some of the world’s most impressive elephant tusks. These remarkable giants, often referred to as ‘big tuskers,’ boast tusks so colossal that they scrape the ground. Today, there are approximately only 25 of these magnificent creatures left worldwide, with most residing in the Tsavo Conservation Area.
In contrast, in many other parts of Africa, elephant tusks don’t grow to such extraordinary sizes. This divergence can be attributed to selective pressure, stemming from decades of targeted hunting for elephants with large tusks. Unfortunately, this relentless pursuit led to a genetic shift in the elephant population, favoring smaller-tusked individuals that were more likely to survive. However, with heightened conservation efforts, we aspire to provide these majestic creatures with their impressive tusks another chance to pass on their unique genes.
What exactly are tusks?
Elephant tusks are elongated incisor teeth made primarily of ivory, a substance mainly composed of dentine and mineralized collagen. Historically, ivory has been coveted worldwide for crafting ornamental objects, fueling the relentless hunting of elephants for centuries. However, today, many of the products once fashioned from ivory, such as billiard balls, inlays, art pieces, and even complete dentures, can be made from alternative materials. Consequently, the demand for ivory has diminished. The banning of the ivory trade in 1989 significantly contributed to stabilizing elephant populations in Africa.
Baby elephants are born with a dental structure known as a ‘tush.’ While similar in composition to tusks, tushes are much smaller, reaching a maximum length of 5 cm. Essentially, these tushes are the equivalent of a baby elephant’s ‘milk teeth.’ Scientists believe that tushes serve no functional purpose other than providing guidance and orientation for the growth of their adult tusks.
At approximately 2 years old, young elephants begin developing their mature tusks adjacent to the tush. The tush is gradually pushed aside and lost by the growing elephant. Once the adult tusks emerge, they continue to grow throughout the elephant’s lifetime, at an astounding rate of 7 inches per year, depending on the elephant’s diet. With a balanced diet, a long lifespan, and a touch of genetic luck, a baby elephant may eventually become a ‘super tusker,’ commanding the mating scene.
Elephant tusks serve a multitude of purposes, from defense against other animals and rival elephants to debarking trees and digging in the soil for essential minerals. They also form a protective ‘cage’ around the elephant’s most valuable tool, its trunk. Notably, like humans favor a hand, elephants often exhibit a preference for one tusk over the other, which can be observed during safaris as one tusk may appear shorter and dirtier than the other.
In Addo National Park, South Africa, a remarkable anomaly stands out among elephants. Here, an astonishing 98% of the female elephants are tuskless, presenting a unique and intriguing phenomenon in the world of elephant populations.
This striking prevalence of tusklessness can be attributed to a historical scourge, poaching. The relentless hunting of tusked elephants in this small, isolated population led to a significant genetic shift, favoring the survival of tuskless females. In an effort to restore genetic diversity, in 2019, the park introduced a large male elephant named Tembe. The hope is that Tembe’s genes will contribute to the resurgence of tusked elephants in this unique ecosystem.
Importance of big tuskers
The persistent scourge of poaching has inflicted a severe toll on elephant populations across Africa, resulting in a marked reduction in tusk sizes. In places like Addo, the impact has been so profound that nearly all female elephants have become tuskless.
This underscores the critical importance of safeguarding the Tsavo Conservation Area, home to some of the planet’s last remaining ‘big tuskers.’ Through collaborative efforts involving conservation organizations, local communities, and sustainable tourism initiatives, we have the opportunity to reverse these trends.
By protecting these magnificent creatures and their habitats, we pave the way for the resurgence of elephant populations, including the iconic big tuskers, ensuring their legacy endures for generations to come.