7.19.2005

Is Evolution Saving the Elephant?

Tuskless Elephants Evolving in China Due to Poaching

from AFP

BEIJING - A recent study has predicted that more male Asian elephants in China will be born without tusks because poaching of tusked elephants is reducing the gene pool, the China Daily reported Sunday.

The study, conducted in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan province, where two-thirds of China's Asian elephants live, found that the tuskless phenomenon is spreading, the report said.

The tusk-free gene, which is found in between two and five percent of male Asian elephants, has increased to between five percent and 10 percent in elephants in China, according to Zhang Li, an associate professor of zoology at Beijing Normal University.

"This decrease in the number of elephants born with tusks shows the poaching pressure for ivory on the animal," said Zhang, whose research team has been studying elephants since 1999 at a reserve in Xishuangbanna.

Only male elephants have tusks, which are said to be a symbol of masculinity and a weapon to fight for territory. However, due to poaching for ivory, the elephants' pride has become a death sentence, the report said.

"The larger tusks the male elephant has, the more likely it will be shot by poachers," said Zhang. "Therefore, the ones without tusks survive, preserving the tuskless gene in the species."

A similar decline in elephants with tusks has been seen in Uganda, which experienced heavy poaching in the 1970s and '80s, the report said.

However, Zhang's findings of the spread of the tuskless gene due to poaching must be tested, according to some academics.

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