When we first told our supporters about our plans to reintroduce the lost gene which allows elephants to grow tusks, some of them asked if it would not be best for all future elephants not to have tusks, because that way they would be of no interest to poachers.
Alas it’s not that simple – an elephant without tusks is a crippled elephant. Not having tusks for an elephant is like not having arms for humans.
Elephants use their tusks for lifting, gathering food, and stripping bark to eat from trees. In times of drought, elephants dig water holes in dry riverbeds by using their tusks, feet, and trunks. They are also important as a defence against predators – a pride of lions are formidable hunters and will target young elephants; tusked elephants are much better equipped to fight for the survival of their young. They also use tusks to avoid the sensitive trunk from being damaged; they tuck it between their tusks when charging. It’s interesting to note that just as humans are left-handed or right-handed, elephants are left or right tusked, using one far more than the other.
Tusks play a significant role in social behaviour. Male elephants are usually solitary and do not have loyalty to one group. They typically roam around trying to find suitable females to mate with. Males compete fiercely and in combat with other elephants, big tusks are a distinct advantage. When we moved our first big tusker to Addo, he acquired four female admirers overnight.
Elephants with tusks are good for the environment, creating habitats for other smaller creatures, like certain lizards for example, who prefer to make their homes in trees roughed up or knocked over by browsing elephants.
Also, we must never forget that having tusks is how elephants are supposed to be!