Wildlife Watch

Why Killing a Bull Elephant With Big Tusks Hurts the Herd

Scientists say the loss of a mature bull elephant has a profound impact on the herd.

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Elephants with large tusks, such as this one in Tanzania, are increasingly rare because of heavy poaching, making them even more valuable to trophy hunters. With elephant numbers in free-fall in many places, losing even one big tusker is damaging to a herd.

By now, news of the big bull elephant hunted in Zimbabwe last week has made its way around the internet. The bull is a “tusker”—an elephant genetically predisposed to being extra big, with extra-large tusks.

His tusks are some of the biggest taken by a hunter in recent decades, according to commenters on an online forum where the photo of the dead animal received fulsome praise from other hunters. The tusks weighed in at 120 pounds and 122 pounds each, according to social media posts.

The elephant was shot in a hunting concession in the Malipati region of Zimbabwe, between Gonarezhou National Park and South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is home to many large bulls.

The shooting of this elephant is drawing the ire of conservationists and scientists alike, who say that killing such an animal has consequences both in terms of protecting the species and in promoting cultural heritage.

Many hunters, on the other hand, argue that the elephant was either past his breeding age or has passed on his genes enough times that he has made a sufficient contribution to the gene pool.

“That’s nonsense,” said Joyce Poole, a researcher who has studied elephant reproduction for decades. “That male they killed was in his prime, and not only was he incredibly important to the females, he was really important to other males as a leader in male society.”

“Old and experienced individuals are crucial,” said Vicki Fishlock, the resident scientist at Amboseli Trust for Elephants, a research and conservation organization in Kenya. “They are so much more than ‘a breeder’—by the time these animals reach this size, they have been parts of social networks for five or six decades and have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals learn from.”

Experts place this elephant at around 50 years old. “Prime” breeding age is considered mid-40s to around 50, and female elephants actually prefer to mate with older, bigger bulls such as this one, research shows.

Plus, research shows that younger male elephants can become aggressive when older bulls aren’t around, much in the way juvenile delinquency in our own cultures has been attributed to the absence of fathers, said Caitlin E. O’Connell, a professor at the at the Stanford School of Medicine and an elephant expert.

But there are very few bigger, older male African elephants left, Poole said. Poachers have gotten many of them, which is why there’s now a growing trend toward poaching even young elephants with small tusks.

And that’s part of the reason hunters have been celebrating this particular kill. Getting to take home trophy tusks of this size has become increasingly difficult. Nowadays, hunters say they’re excited for anything bigger than 75 pounds. And while there have been a few big elephants hunted in Zimbabwe this year, the average tusk size that hunters can expect is closer to 40 or 50 pounds, according to one website.

Tusk size is, in part, genetic. While the bull killed last week surely has mated many times, the genes for big tusks are already on the decline, meaning the genetic contribution of every elephant is important. Elephants are now evolving to have smaller tusks because poaching and hunting has removed many big-tusked elephants from the gene pool.

Protections for Cultural Icons?

Aside from the biological impacts of removing a large-tusked male from the breeding population, conservationists and even some hunters have raised ethical and cultural concerns.

On the hunting forum accuratereloading.com, one commenter, identified as Mike, said, “Shooting an elephant like that is kind of like shooting the last tasmanian devil. This elephant will not be replaced for a long time given the terrible state of African elephants.”

Louis Muller, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association, told The Telegraph that big elephants could benefit from the extra protection afforded by a tracking collar. “‘We have suggested before to all concerned parties that each elephant area should collar a few with biggest tusks, so that we do not shoot them...Nobody responded to our suggestion last year. We believe this might now be taken seriously.’”

Elephants as big as the Zimbabwe bull are iconic, and conservationists have suggested that village communities would benefit more from the tourism money the magnificent animals could bring than from trophy hunting fees.

Hunting “is legal, but the thing is, the ethics [are] out the window,” Johnny Rodrigues, the head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told BBC World Service. “When you see an elephant like that, which you haven’t seen for years, you should actually put a collar on it and use it as a marketing tool because not everywhere in the world can you find an animal like that.”

Besides, elephants are feeling creatures, and that needs to be considered, Joyce Poole said. They’re long-lived, intelligent, and social. They’re self-aware animals that think about the future, think about the past, that are aware of death. This elephant had friends who cared about him, and it will make a difference to their lives that he’s gone.”

To companions of all ages,” added Vicki Fishlock, “the loss of these individuals makes a profound difference.”

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Elephants tusk size has shrunk by half during the past 150 years. Here, a worker carries a tusk to auction in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1969.

What We Know About the Hunt

The identity of the hunter, a German, has not been made public.

Take Aim Safaris, a company owned by Carl Knight that offers elephant hunts in the Gonarezhou region, where the bull was shot, was originally given credit for the hunt. Its website—now down for “scheduled maintenance”—featured a photo of the dead elephant. According to the website, Take Aim Safaris charges a $20,000 trophy fee for elephant with tusks of 90 pounds or more.

The hunt was led by a well-known professional hunter named Nixon Dzingai, who did not respond to emails or calls.

What’s In a Name?

There was originally some speculation that the elephant could have been Nkombo, a tusker from Kruger National Park, but Nkombo was seen a few days before the hunt more than 70 miles south, and it’s improbable he could have traveled so far so fast. Besides, people who have tracked and photographed Nkombo say he rarely strays far.

Hunters who saw the photo of the dead bull immediately worried that he may have had a name. When people found out the lion killed in Zimbabwe over the summer had a name, Cecil, it ignited a media storm.

“Really hope this elephant did not had [sic] a name,” said one commenter on the hunting forum. (Read this, and other hunters’ reactions to the kill here). Research shows that humans are more apt to sympathize with animals that share traits with us, such as intelligence, emotion—and names.

Conservationists in the Gonarezhou area have said that this elephant hasn’t been sighted before, so it’s possible that he’d wandered up from Kruger .

Regardless of opinions on sports hunting, the industry needs to restrict hunting of elephants with tusks over a certain size, said Caitlin O’Connell, who believes hunting has an economic role in Africa. “There need to be checks and balances. There were no checks and balances here here. This was a fluke event that someone should have stopped. It should have been a huge gift to the country that he...was there.”

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by a grant from the BAND Foundation.  

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