Long is excited to study evolution in action. Evolution happens whenever there are changes in a population’s genes because of selection. “In these elephant populations, we’re seeing changes from artificial selection,” says Long. This type of selection was caused by the poachers in Gorongosa.
His investigation could help scientists understand a phenomenon that may ultimately affect many elephants across Africa. Increases in the number of tuskless elephants have been documented in South Africa, Uganda, and Tanzania. Although the herds in Gorongosa are now well protected and recovering from the losses they suffered during the war, Poole says, “many other populations are still declining.”
Long notes that tuskless elephants are a stark reminder of the human impact on these animals. “Everybody knows that poaching can lead to declining populations,” says Long, “but we’re only beginning to understand the effects it can have on the elephants who survive. Their populations may be altered for generations to come.”