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How poaching is changing the faces of African elephants

Elephants never forget — but it's up to humans to remember they're worth saving.

African bush elephants are the largest land animals and one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth. Their enormous tusks are one of their most recognizable features — and one of the biggest reasons humans have potentially set elephants on a path to extinction.

The value placed on elephant ivory has created an insatiable appetite for it. It’s an expensive luxury item in the Asian market. The bigger the tusks, the more money poachers can get from selling it.

One-third of an elephant’s tusks (long teeth) are embedded in its skull.

Elephants’ tusks continually grow throughout their life (provided the roots of the tusks haven’t been damaged). So male elephants and older female elephants tend to have a larger set of tusks. After big tuskers are killed off, it artificially creates a larger pool of elephants with small tusks or none at all. In recent decades, several African parks have seen an uptick in the number of elephants being born tuskless.

Tusklessness is a natural trait in elephants, but being born tuskless isn’t the biggest detriment to elephant society. After poachers have killed male elephants with the biggest tusks, older female elephants are then sought after. If an older female elephant is killed and she is the matriarch of her family, it can have a ripple effect on future elephants down the line. A matriarch has generations of knowledge to ensure the survival of her family — and without her guidance, entire groups can fall apart.

Elephants have been here for more than 1.5 million years.

Modern elephants, and their tusks, have been here for more than a million years, but in a matter of decades, human intervention is changing their faces and their futures. Watch the video above to learn more about how this is happening and what is being done to stop it.