How Poachers are Influencing the Evolution of Wildlife

Story by: Rebecca West
The bane of wildlife in Africa isn’t necessarily apex predators higher up on the food chain but poachers. The revolting crimes continue unabated due to the lucrative trade netting between $5- and $23 billion annually, according to statistics from the World Animal Foundation. Thousands of endangered animals die from poachers in Africa daily, and in protecting wildlife, approximately two rangers are killed each week.

The number of pachyderms killed each year is so shocking we’d rather not post the exact figures for fear you won’t be able to read on, but the Center for Biological Diversity notes that nearly 30,000 species are driven to extinction annually (influenced by human behavior). While heart-wrenching, there is some news regarding this abhorrent trend that rhinoceros and elephants have started to undergo an evolutionary trend that could potentially save their lives, even if it does come with lasting impacts.

Rhino Horns

Not long ago, scientists began investigating whether poaching might be at the heart of the shrinking size of rhinoceros horns. Researcher Oscar Wilson set about measuring the overall length of horns from 80 images taken of rhinos between the years 1862 and 2018. They are housed on The Netherlands’ Rhino Resource Center’s website. The analysis included five different species of rhinos with varied horn lengths.

With the findings published in the scientific journal People and Nature, it was determined that the horns of all five species have shrunk in size during the period under investigation. The hypothesis is that since poachers prefer larger horns and kill the animals to get them — rather than employ tranquilizers — smaller-horned rhinos that are overlooked survive to pass along the shorter-horned trait to their offspring.

“We were really excited that we could find evidence from photographs that rhino horns have become shorter over time,” Wilson was quoted as saying. “They’re probably one of the hardest things to work on in natural history because of the security concerns.”

Tuskless Elephants

Unfortunately, these findings parallel those of elephants, with up to 50 percent of females living in the East African country of Mozambique now finding themselves tusk-free. It’s been surmised that the phenomenon is likely the result of 15 years of civil war there when poachers had free rein to operate outside the law. Elephants use their tusks for such tasks as moving large, heavy objects, digging for water, striping bark for food, and protecting themselves, so it’s yet to be seen how this will impact them in the long run.

As with rhinoceros, large tusks attract poachers. In the 1970s in Mozambique’s Gorongosa, less than a fifth of female elephants were tuskless. Researchers have learned it takes only a single genetic mutation for a female elephant to become tuskless. While the change is incredibly sad, these elephants are said to be five times more likely to survive, which is incredible in itself.

“Evolution is simply a change in heritable characteristics within a population over successive generations, and based on the results of our study, the shift toward tuskless-ness among female elephants at Gorongosa fits this definition perfectly,” Ryan Long, an author of the study of the subject and an associate professor of wildlife sciences at the University of Idaho, informed CNN.

Moving with the Times

These surprising evolutionary changes are not without consequences to a third type of pachyderm, however, as it’s been reported that in place of dwindling ivory supplies poachers are now targeting hippos for their teeth as a source of ivory. Even though the teeth are harder and shorter than tusks, making them more difficult to carve and not as bountiful in gross weight or size, it hasn’t stopped them being hunted down.

What we can do as humans is to refuse to purchase items containing any of these body parts, but that’s proven difficult among many cultures that stubbornly refuse to get with the times. Until views on these barbaric practices can be changed, supporting their protection and boycotting products seems our only hope.

Elephant Retribution

If it makes you feel any better, elephants appear to be fighting back in more ways than evolutionary changes. It was reported recently that an elephant herd in South Africa’s Kruger National Park trampled a suspected rhino poacher to death in an angry flash mob-style killing. It was said the man was fleeing from park rangers when the elephants caught up with him. Afterward, rangers discovered a bag with a rifle and ax inside. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes…



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