Not only have poachers killed millions of African elephants in the past several decades, reducing populations by 90 percent in some areas, but the effect of poaching has become so profound that it's impacting the animals' gene pool.
The result is that an increasing number of African elephants are born without tusks, conservation group Elephant Voices told The Independent, with 98 percent of females born tusk-less in some areas.
Poaching is fueled by a large market for ivory, especially in China and other parts of Asia where ivory is seen as a status symbol by the newly rich, wildlife groups say. African warlords and militant groups have in turn come to rely on profits from the ivory trade, which have become a "key source" of their income, according to National Geographic.
About a third of Africa's elephant population has been culled within the past decade to meet the demands in Asia, Elephant Voices says, according to The Independent.
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By exterminating tusked elephants, poachers are leaving only populations without tusks, which in turn breed and pass down the tusk-less genes to their newborns. Elephant Voices co-founder Joyce Poole says 30 percent of female elephants born in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park since 1992 have not had tusks.
That's because 90 percent of the park's elephants were slaughtered during the country's civil war between 1977 and 1992, leaving only a small population, mostly without tusks.
“Females who are tuskless are more likely to produce tuskless offspring,” Poole said.
African elephants are the world's largest land animals, and are most easily distinguished from their cousins, Asian elephants, by their tusks. Before poaching and the ivory trade reduced the number of African elephants from millions to an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 today, all African elephants were born with tusks, World Wildlife Fund reports.
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In 2016, the U.S. passed a set of tough ivory regulations. In China, where the ivory trade is legal, authorities have pledged to institute a ban by the end of the year, the World Wildlife Federation said.
Poachers kill between 30,000 and 50,000 elephants each year, according to the U.K.'s Born Free Foundation and the WWF. Born Free says poachers target entire herds of elephants, "shooting them with automatic weapons and hacking off their tusks with axes and chainsaws."