Once a common sight roaming across East, Central and Southern Africa, there are now fewer than 30 African elephants (Loxodonta africana) with tusks long enough to reach the ground. Known as ‘big tuskers’, these giants inevitably attract the unwanted attention of ivory poachers.


Over a third of them are found in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, with the remaining handful of individuals spread far and wide across Africa. At Tsavo, ten are under the careful guardianship of Richard Moller, CEO of the Tsavo Trust, who has the challenging task of keeping these precious animals safe. These figures feel astonishingly small, but Moller remains positive, having identified another 16 elephants within Tsavo that are on target to have record breaking tusks within the next decade.

 A 'big tusker' will have a pair of tusks, each weighing as much as a person

“Given just another five to ten years of life these new bulls will be the big tuskers of tomorrow, and they are living proof of the extra ordinary gene pool of tuskers that Tsavo enjoys,” says Moller.

“A big tusker will have a pair of tusks, with each weighing as much as a person," explains Ian Redmond OBE, a renowned conservationist specialising in elephants and apes. “An elephant with effectively two people permanently balanced on its head must have both the skeleton and musculature to cope with that, so in essence a big tusker will be huge in every aspect.”

These fine bulls should reach their prime between 40 and 50 years of age. This time when they reach their reproductive peak, also coincides with the most pronounced tusk growth rate. “An elephant will grow more ivory in the last ten years of its life, than in the first ten or twenty,” confirms Redmond.

Their weighty teeth are the key to reproductive success, as they will be used to bully and intimidate less well-endowed males, and also size really does seem to matter among the females. But due to man’s insatiable greed for ivory, these huge tusks have become the metaphorical albatross around their necks.

It's fantastic news, as China is where most of the ivory is going

Redmond also believes that the traditional difficult relationship between people and elephants may even be escalating to a dangerous degree. As elephant habitat is increasingly encroached on by humans, so the opportunities for elephants and humans to clash also inevitably increases, with devastating results.

"If you are a farmer growing a crop that an elephant likes to eat, you may lose your harvest. That’s you and your family without income for months.

Tusks on TV

UK viewers can watch Gordon Buchanan as he follows a herd of elephants in the Kenyan wilderness.

Gordon Buchanan: Elephant Family & Me begins Boxing Day, 20:30 GMT on BBC Two.

"Additionally, in the back of some people’s minds, they might be thinking: 'Not only would I prefer not to be killed by this elephant, or have my crops destroyed, but there is a bloke down the road who will give me 500 bucks ($500 USD) if I get their tusks.' "

This is clearly becoming a critical situation, but there is some potentially good news on the horizon.

The end of an era

Earlier this month China outlined its plans for a timetable to close their ivory factories; something Ian Redmond believes could be a game-changer.

“Its fantastic news, as that’s where most of the ivory is going,” he enthuses. “In the past, there hasn’t been much emphasis on enforcing these laws, but I think this is changing, firstly because of international pressure, but also the bare facts that elephants are declining at such a rate, which if continues unchanged, we will see the their population reduced to zero.”

Last year, the world’s largest market for both legal and illegal ivory said it would shut down commercial sales within the country, but did not set a timeline. Now it has been announced that by the end of this year, China will set a schedule to phase out commercial trading in ivory.

And there is even more to be positive about, with the recent announcement of a three-step plan to phase out Hong Kong’s ivory trade by the end of 2021.

“It will take time before those collecting ivory are persuaded to change their ways, but it will certainly help if there are strict enforcements. And when China enforces the law, it is strict,” explains Redmond.

Time is sadly not something big tuskers have much of, but this announcement has reinforced hope that the numbers of these magestic, sentient mammals could gradually increase with continued protection.

UK viewers can see one of these glorious big tuskers in action by tuning in to Gordon Buchanan: Elephant Family & Me, which begins on Boxing Day at 20:30 GMT on BBC Two.

Be the first to know about new BBC Earth articles and wildlife programmes by signing up for the BBC's new personalised email newsletter here. You can also follow BBC Earth on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.