Poaching drives surge of tuskless elephants: 3 stories you may have missed

© Jonathan Irish

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Disturbing answers to the mystery of tuskless female elephants 

Elephants without tusks have a better chance of surviving poachers, but there is a catch. 

The story: As many as 35,000 elephants are killed across Africa each year — the majority hunted by poachers for their ivory tusks. As a result, tusklessness — a once-rare genetic trait— is becoming more common in African elephant populations, according to a new study. However, the genetic mutation is only viable in females. When it is passed on to males they die in the womb. Scientists say this disparity could have long-term implications for the survival of the species, reports Rachel Nuwer for Scientific American. 

“The study shows that tuskless male elephant offspring are not viable, meaning that population decline is accentuated,” Fanie Pelletier, an ecologist, told Scientific American. “Not only do animals die due to poaching, but there is also additional decline because half of the male offspring from the surviving tuskless mothers do not survive.”

The big picture: The study “is certain to become a textbook example of how intense human exploitation of wildlife can rapidly change the natural world,” Jeffrey Good, a mammalian evolutionary geneticist who was not involved in the research, told National Geographic. Tuskless elephants are not the only case of animal adaptations caused by human impacts. For example, during the industrial revolution moths in the United Kingdom adapted to have mostly black wings rather than white wings, likely to camouflage in polluted skies

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Countries must flatline their emissions within the next three decades, experts say. 

The story: To avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we must reach net zero emissions within the next 30 years, reports Akshat Rathi, Eric Roston and Jeremy Scott Diamond for Bloomberg Green. But how? According to experts, necessary steps on the path to net-zero include ceasing new oil and gas development, increasing investments in renewable energy and promoting sustainable agriculture practices.  

The big picture: World leaders are set to convene in November at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow to chart a course for stopping climate breakdown. Following a year of cancelled international negotiations on climate and nature due to the coronavirus, now is the time to get it right when it comes to curbing emissions, says Shyla Raghav, Conservation International's vice president of climate strategy. 

“Countries' responses to climate change need to match the urgency of the crisis,” she said. “This will require more tangible plans to reduce emissions across entire economies. Humanity can still get it right with transformative and decisive action, but there is no time to waste.”  

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Some countries pushed back on the findings of the recent UN climate report. 

The story: A large cache of documents leaked to BBC News revealed that several countries lobbied the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to downplay the urgency with which fossil fuels must be cut to combat climate change, write Justin Rowlatt and Tom Gerken for BBC. The IPCC was the first to state unequivocally that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land" — and that global temperature rise will almost certainly reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 20 years unless humanity takes rapid action to halt emissions. Among the countries lobbying for a slower transition away from fossil fuels were Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan, according to the leaked documents. 

The big picture: The recent UN report synthesized information from more than 14,000 climate studies with input and approval from scientists in 195 countries, reflecting a remarkable level of consensus from the world’s top researchers in this field. Although some countries have pushed back on its findings, the report “states with scientific credibility that we are unequivocally responsible for warming the planet and that catastrophe is not looming in some imagined future, it is here and now,” says Will Turner, a Conservation International scientist. 

“At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible,” he said in a recent interview with Conservation News. “We can still make a difference, but we must act now.”

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Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: A tuskless African elephant, Tanzania (© Flicker/Paul Shaffner)

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