Scientists to find why elephants are shedding their tusks

To collect and store blood, tusk and semen samples of identified tuskers

Scientists to find why elephants are shedding their tusks

Elephants with huge tusks, weighing as much as 90 kg and measuring up to nine feet, have become rare today.

Officers of the Karnataka Forest department and scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and IISc-Education and Research, Pune, are now trying to study through genotyping how and why the tusks have reduced in size and girth and since when.

Experts point out that Karnataka has around 6,000 elephants, but male elephants with huge tusks constitute less than 50 per cent. In fact, some of them are makanas (tuskless male elephants).

R Sukumar, elephant expert and professor of Ecology, IISc, who heads the study, said this could be primarily because the majestic tuskers were poached for ivory over the years. The gene died along with them. A change in food pattern, loss of natural forage and habitat could be other reasons, he added.

“We are trying to understand which gene regulates the growth of tusks and what could have reduced their size. We want to collect and examine the entire geno of tuskers and tusk so that we can narrow down to one and say this gene has changed. We are seeing more makanas in Karnataka and other parts of India. In fact, in Northeast India, over 50 per cent of the males are makanas.”

The study started a month ago and the team has collected blood and tusk samples of Jayprakash, a 52-year-old camp tusker from Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Scientists will study the complete DNA sequel. They have estimated an initial cost of Rs 50 lakh for the study.
Sukumar added that no time-frame had been set for the study. In the first step, samples of camp tuskers will be taken and later from wild tuskers.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Deepak Sharma pointed that the change in tusk sizes was clearly visible since the past 20 years. “In early 1980s, I remember encountering a tusker whose tusks were over eight feet long. Now, the tusks do not measure over five feet. Even Arjun and Balaram, who carried the howdah during Mysore Dasara, do not have those tusk sizes.”

According to Forest department officials, of the 2,900 tusks in their custody in Mysore, some weigh over 80 to 90 kg and measure around eight to nine feet. An in-charge official said the tusks were seized before 1980s. The ones seized now do not weigh more than 40 kg.

Former PCCF (Wildlife) G S Prabhu, who is part of the study, said search for the majestic tusker was on under the study. “Blood and tusk samples of these identified tuskers will be taken. Semen will also be collected and stored.

It will be injected into female elephants to bring back male tuskers with huge tusks. Sukumar has selected 30 tusks from the 2,900 ivories in the Forest department’s possession for the study. Of these, he is  interested in studying the DNA of 10 tusks.”

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