Darwinism in Africa: Poaching and the Gene Pool – Commentary and Recommendation by Andres Elvira

This short but provocative news article in The Independent introduces an alarming example of humanity’s influence on the gene pool for the worse. The African ivory trade persists to this day, fueled by both chronic poverty and ongoing civil wars, and has seen a surge in ivory consumption in China and other parts of Asia. However, for the first time, something has changed not in the manner in which human beings respond to poaching, but in how the elephant genetic code responds to it: African elephants are being discovered to have been born tuskless, formerly an exclusive characteristic of their Asian cousins. Tusklessness is not a new elephant trait: on average, two to six percent of female African elephants were phenotypically tuskless. Today, in some study areas, the number is now ninety-eight percent. Although elephants have been targeted before for bushmeat, ivory poachers will specifically target specimens with the best tusks from sight. As such, tuskless specimens are ignored and allowed to propagate; a female tuskless elephant carries the (presumably recessive) gene for the trait, making it increasingly likely that she will produce tuskless offspring. This is not a minor issue, especially if conservation is of primary concern. Tusks are used for foraging, defense, and sexual display, making their absence another factor that compiles to compromise the future of their species.

            This article shows just one more of far too many examples of how humanity’s influence on the natural world can have repercussions which extend beyond any human predictions or intentions (whenever those consist of). A more benign example would be attempts to regulate predation in Yellowstone National Park by culling wolf populations through sanctioned hunting. As a result, grazers reached unsustainable numbers in the absence of predation, leading to attempts to increase wolf populations, and so forth. The same occurred with the introduction of cattle to the North American plains: despite its idealization in the visage of the cowboy, the influx of cattle compacted soil in a manner never foreign to the region, thus preventing rainwater seepage and causing erosion and flooding. Injection of water in faults seems to be lubricating tectonic plates to increase risks of earthquake. In this case, there is firsthand evidence that humanity has inadvertently modified the gene pool to respond to their own activity. Poaching targets only a specific population of elephants: males and females of reproductive age with the highest quality ivory. As such, the poachers have established themselves as an environmental pressure selecting for tuskless specimens and against tusked offspring. This might not be exceedingly surprising, given that the poaching industry has continued for so long, but it does force one to wonder exactly what other—seemingly moderate—human activities regarding the environment and the animal kingdom will have long-term effects on the animal gene pool that no one is speculating about: fox hunting, bull fighting, traditional swidden agriculture, fur farming, tree spiking, rewilding, the exotic pet trade, and the African Union’s plan for a Great Green Wall across the Sahara Desert. If anything is to be gleaned from this, it is that humanity’s presence on the Earth is alone a penetrative phenomenon into the global biosphere. To ensure that it is a positive one which does not endanger humanity’s own life support system, everything must be questioned and reflected upon.

England, Charlotte. “African elephants are being born without tusks due to poaching, researchers say.” The Independent. 26 Nov. 2016. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

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