IFAW Africa: Elephants and Their Tusks
These stories were submitted by our team on the ground in Africa,
working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service, our partner in Tsavo
West National Park. For more information on the International Fund
for Animal Welfare's work in Tsavo, please visit www.ifaw.org/kenya
Elephant tusks are at once an amazing biological adaptation and a cause of much misery to these animals. For centuries, ivory tusks have been carved into intricate and beautiful trinkets and works of art. The ugly history of elephant poaching is a direct result of the existence of these elongated incisor teeth, or tusks.
Elephants tusks come in different shapes and sizes. Generally, female African elephant tusks are evenly shaped and have the same thickness along their length, though they can be long and curved. In comparison, the tusks of bull elephants are much heavier and tend to thicken from the tip to the tooth socket.
Elephants use their tusks for various functions. Tusks are used as weapons during fights with other elephants and for digging in soil to get to minerals, mainly in areas where there is little salt in the water. Tusks are used to break trees and as a resting place for its heavy trunk.
Their main purpose, however, is to help the elephant harvest its main diet: grass. The animal bundles grass stems with its trunk then, by pressing the grass bundle against a tusk, pulls the grass roots out of the soil. Elephants often favor one tusk over the other for this work. On old elephants, you can sometimes see a distinctive dent in the ivory, caused by years of grass bundling.
Older bull elephants often have one broken tusk, the result of either a serious fight with another bull or a break caused by uprooting a tree. Generally an elephant’s pair of tusks look alike but they can also be distinctly different: one long, the other short and stumpy or one straight, the other curved and pointing in a different. Tusk shapes and sizes are always a good “fingerprint” in recognizing individuals, in addition to the shape and tears in their ears.
The often-recorded sight of an elephant placing his trunk over one tusk is now interpreted by researchers as elephant “sign language,” a signal that he does not mean any harm, that he is being friendly and peaceful.
After the heavy poaching days in Kenya’s Tsavo national parks during the 1970s and ‘80s, there were few elephants left with thick and heavy sets of ivory. The next generation showed only small tusks, if any at all – almost as if they had adapted to rampant poaching by bearing smaller ivory tusks. Tuskless elephants became a more familiar and regular sight than those with large tusks.
Today, though we still see tuskless elephants, more and more bulls have “big ivory” while in their teenage years. This is a very promising sign – long may it last with effective protection and an end to ivory poaching.