Emerging Online Market for Elephant Skin

By Nina Rygh, Asia Reporter

Photo Courtesy of The Strait Times

An emerging online market for elephant skin in China is threatening the survival of elephants in Myanmar as slaughter increases to match demand.

The largest conservation concern for Asian elephants have been habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. Poaching of Asian elephants usually haven’t been the main threat due to the fact that tusks are not as common among Asian elephants. However, recent findings from scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have found that poaching, not for elephant tusks but for the animal’s meat and skins, is an emerging crisis for Asian elephants in Myanmar.

The biggest market for the products is China, where the tough skin is ground up and used to treat stomach or human skin ailments or sold as jewelry in the form of blood-red beads and pendants.

Unlike poaching for ivory, the skin and meat trade does not discriminate between genders

or age, making it the most dangerous form of poaching where no elephant is safe. As McEvoy puts it: “hunting females and calves is a really quick way to drive a species towards extinction.”

The Smithsonian team have been tracking elephants in areas of human-wildlife conflict to understand their movements through the landscape better.

“But in the past few years (since the study began in 2014) we started to see a lot of the elephants dropping off the map in a pretty alarming way,” McEvoy says. “And we started to realize that there is a bit of a crisis going on.” Over a period of less than two years, at least 19 individuals were killed just in one 13.5-square-mile area studied.

Reports from the government of Myanmar show that poaching is on the rise in the country.

During 2016, 25 elephants were poached. In the preceding five years combined, 61 elephants had been poached.

In response to the discovery of the poaching pandemic, the Myanmar government has also created an elephant emergency response unit that coordinates patrols to prevent poaching into the future. Education in local communities through schools is also key to ensuring the elephants are protected.