Today I came across an article with the headline ‘poachers kill one of Africa’s last remaining big tusker elephants’ (link underneath). My first thought should have been shock, however after researching the African elephant recently due to the media coverage of the tusk burning (by government officials in Kenya) I had concluded that it was more of a desperately sad inevitability.
What is a Supertusker?
Supertuskers is a term given to some of the few remaining elephants (estimates allude to 20 supertuskers left) whose ivory tusks almost touch the ground. It generally takes bulls ~50 years to grow tusks of this size! Commonly male and females will grow tusks (in Africa) but the males’ tusks will be of greater circumference. Shockingly there is now evidence suggesting that elephants’ tusk sizes are diminishing with each generation due to the selection pressure of poaching. In eastern Zambia, the proportion of tuskless female elephants shot up from 10 per cent in 1969 to 40 per cent in 1989 as a result of poaching (African Journal of Ecology, vol 33, p 230). This change has been observed in bulls also, although not as frequently.
Why should I care?
Great question. Why should anyone give a damn about anything? In my opinion it boils down to this species existing here before us, since the late Miocene epoch specifically. Fast forward a few thousand years and their teeth became the object of fascination, associated with prosperity and wealth, a status symbol (especially in China). The death of a highly sentient, intelligent being far less important than a decorative item to flaunt in a decedent dwelling. It is important that we care because China have declared that all trading will stop by the end of 2017 – why are elephants still being poached then? Is this a last-ditch attempt to flog as much ivory as possible before the deadline? Or (and as ever the cynic my personal view), will we see the rise of black market ivory sales, side alleys and dingy basement graveyards filled top to bottom with the teeth of once magnificent creatures…
If you’re interested, you should check out a documentary called ‘The Ivory Game’ produced in part by Leonardo DiCaprio. It gives a very in depth and harrowing view to what is happening on the ground in Africa and convergently with undercover agents in China. Not just limited to supertuskers, this is a very real threat which effects all types of tusked elephants.