Tusks are teeth. Elephants and their ancestors developed these elongated incisors for a variety of reasons, from digging dirt for salt and water and pealing bark for food to establishing themselves as the dominant male in the presence of females. Both male and female African elephants have tusks. Among Asian elephants, only males develop tusks. Tusks come in all shapes and sizes; and elephants tend to be either right-tusked or left-tusked, just as we humans are left- or right-handed. Tusks become visible in young elephants when they are 2 to 3 years old and continue to grow for the remainder of an elephant’s life. Elephants do not shed their tusks at various stages in life. If a tusk is broken, it does not grow back. Like our teeth, tusks can be crooked. This elephant lives in Kenya’s Masai Mara. Her one tusk is particularly crooked, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of a healthy life. Her young calf, below, is just “sprouting” tusks; too soon to tell if baby has inherited mama’s crooked teeth!
And speaking of inherited traits, scientists have noted that the average size of elephant tusks has decreased since the 19th century. Since elephants with the largest tusks have always been prized by hunters and poachers alike, those with the genetic disposition for large tusks have been substantially removed from the breeding population by now. Some posit that nature may be playing a hand in today’s elephants’ smaller tusks in another way, suggesting that elephants are such intelligent creatures that large tusks may no longer be the aphrodisiac they once were for wise female elephants.
In any event, if you see ivory in any market, anywhere in the world today, you should assume that it is poached or “crooked” ivory, even if it grew in straight. And to that end, there is now 5 tons less crooked ivory on the market as the Philippine government demolished that amount this past week. (Click here for the details.)