Cut it out

A critique of recent suggestions to hack tusks, horns and other poachers' delights to save endangered animals.

By L A K Singh
Published: Friday 31 December 1993

Ajit Ninani As if the destruction of habitats and its impact on the normal behaviour of various species wasn't enough, there are now suggestions encouraging amputation of animal parts attractive to poachers (IUCN Bulletin, 1993, No 1). It is a shocking proposition that wildlife managers should cut the tusks from elephants and horns from rhinos to make these animals unattractive to poachers. But, bad habits die hard. The poachers may soon find bones of elephants and rhinos as attractive as tiger bones. The problem, however, would continue.

Tusks and horns are not like the human appendix, which creates trouble and has no known benefit. An appendix can be taken out without interfering with the ways of nature. But there are organs that have evolved in animals through thousands of years of natural selection because they serve a purpose. There are historical records of Asiatic elephants using their tusks for haulage.

The African elephants, however, use their tusks to advertise sexual vigour. Tusks are also used to gouge bark from trees, which add fibre to the diet. They might also be used to dig salt licks from the ground or uproot some favoured plants. Tusks are not merely ornaments a healthy elephant can do without.

The longest pair of tusks on record are 266.7 cm for African elephants and 248.9 cm for the Asiatic variety. Elephants with such large tusks have been butchered in the past and tusks longer than 200 cm tusks are now rarely heard of. The point is that elephants with large tusks have already been removed from the elephant gene pool. We should not compound the blunder by culling tusks to protect the elephant. Tusk-less elephants are like peacocks without plumes. The same could be said of rhinos and antelopes.
Selective killing Among the 22 species of crocodiles, only the gharials are sexually distinct. The ghara, an external bulge over the nostrils at the tip of the long snout of males make the distinction possible. Males grow larger gharas than the female and have been the first to be killed in the past. The long-term implications of such selective killing would mean removing gharials with large gharas from the genetic pool.

What's more, the maximum size of all three Indian species of crocodiles is much less than in the past. The average size of gharials has come down from 10 metres to 6.5 m, of muggers from 5.4 m to 4 m and of estuarine crocodiles from about 10 m to 8 m. The larger females and the good mothers, who show up most often at the nest or with hatchlings, have also been favourite targets.

Historical records have shown how selective killing has changed the size, features and behaviour of animals. Past mistakes should not be compounded by supporting the detusking of elephants or dehorning the rhino as "alternative conservation strategies". Instead, the commitment to neutralise trophy hunters should be stepped up.

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