In a Horrifying New Twist, Myanmar Elephants Are Being Poached For Their Skin

In Asia, the biggest threat to elephant survival has long been habitat loss. That may be changing

In Asia, the biggest threat to elephant survival isn't ivory poaching but habitat loss. Here, men ride Asian elephants in Thailand. (Vincenzo Mercedes / Ala)
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John McEvoy was worried.

For three years, the postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute had been working with a team of researchers to track Asian elephants in Myanmar using GPS collars. By learning how the massive animals moved in areas they shared with humans, they hoped to find ways to help pachyderms and humans coexist. But the researchers soon began noticing something strange.

After affixing GPS collars to 19 elephants, many of those elephants began dropping off the map. What the team found when they investigated signals from elephants that had stopped moving was horrifying: Dead, rotting carcasses strewn throughout the jungle.

And something about these corpses stood out to them immediately. They’d been skinned.

“When they are finding these carcasses they've been professionally butchered, the skin is removed and the trunks, sometimes the feet and the ears,” McEvoy says. “It's quite a harrowing thing to see that in the field, particularly for the Burmese people who have quite a connection with these elephants.”

Within a year of being fitted for a collar, seven elephants the team had tagged were dead. When the team’s Burmese contacts started asking local people questions, they realized that they'd unintentionally uncovered a disturbing new problem: These elephants were poached for their skin.

One of the elephants wearing a GPS collar as part of the SCBI's human-elephant conflict research in Myanmar. (Smithsonian / SCBI)

Different Threats

It's no secret that human lust for ivory has decimated African elephants. Savanna-dwelling populations have declined by 30 percent in just the last seven years, and forest elephant numbers plunged a staggering 62 percent from 2002 to 2013. Moreover, a recent study found that 90 percent of the market’s ivory is from elephants dead less than three years, proof that ongoing poaching is intimately linked with the African elephant crisis.

But what researchers found in Myanmar wasn’t about ivory. Most of the elephants found dead didn’t even have tusks. So what was driving this?

In Asia, where around 50,000 wild elephants live scattered across 13 nations, the biggest challenge to elephant survival has historically been habitat loss. The region’s already dense human populations continue to grow, expanding into elephant territory and forcing the pachyderms into smaller and smaller spaces. "Of course they will raid the crops," says McEvoy. "They can eat quite a lot, but even just walking through a rice paddy can destroy the livelihoods of a lot of people. They occasionally raid houses if there is food stored inside a small house.”

Altercations spurred by elephants eating or trampling crops result in the deaths of people and elephants alike. According to the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan, more than a dozen people are killed by elephants each year. Still, there’s no doubt to McEvoy which species is impacted most. “By and large it's the elephants who lose out,” he says. “They lose their habitat, and they often get killed.”

Part of the reason poaching isn't as big in Asia is that tusks aren’t as common among Asian elephants. Only 25 to 30 percent of male Asian elephants have tusks (percentages vary by region) and no females have them. That means even ivory poachers generally spare breeding females and calves, which take years to come to maturity. And because elephants are polygamous, surviving males can help pick up the reproductive slack for those that have been killed, which prevents numbers from plunging.

Unlike poaching for ivory, however, the skin trade makes all elephants valuable to poachers. Females and even calves are targeted. That's bad news for long-lived animals who reproduce slowly, putting years of resources into the survival of each calf. As McEvoy puts it: “hunting females and calves is a really quick way to drive a species towards extinction.”

That's why the new findings are so disturbing, says Peter Leimgruber, head of SCBI’s Conservation Ecology Center and last author of a new study on the phenomenon published in the open-access journal PLOS One. “It was very surprising,” says Leimgruber, who leads the elephant tracking team along with SCBI conservation biologist and co-author Melissa Songer. “I've worked on elephants in Myanmar for some 20 years and I never thought that poaching really played any major role.”

If elephant skin becomes a highly desired product like ivory, however, that could change.

‘Heartbreaking’ Discoveries

To tackle the elephant-human conflict issue, the Smithsonian team captured and tagged elephants in areas where such conflicts are more common, like rice paddies and sugarcane or palm oil plantations. They then tracked the movements of each elephant by the hour, creating maps to better understand how male and female elephants of different ages use the landscape throughout the day and night.

“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.

Myanmar government conservationists and a community outreach program called Human-elephant Peace then collected information from patrols and informants across south-central Myanmar, and discovered the same disturbing story—the rotting carcasses of dead, skinned elephants.

“When I was last over there a few months ago I showed up in the field to start collaring and before we could even begin in the morning we heard about an elephant that had been poached nearby,” McEvoy says. “It's pretty heartbreaking.”

What was most shocking, Leimgruber adds, was not the phenomenon but the scope. “I've seen elephant skins in markets, that's not new," he says. “But this scale at which it's happening now? That's never been there.”

SCBI is not the only organization to uncover evidence of a burgeoning elephant skin trade. In 2016 the UK conservation organization Elephant Family found disturbing signs during an investigation into the live elephant trade between Myanmar and Thailand. “One of our investigators was offered product, shown a photograph of a skinned elephant, and it was the first we knew of skin being traded as a product,” notes Belinda Stewart-Cox, the organization's Acting Director of Conservation.

The NGO recently reported that they've found elephant skin for sale at close to $29 per pound in the Myanmar/China border town of Mong La, and that over 900 pounds of elephant skin were seized at Southwest China's Lianghe border crossing. Yet while she was well aware that Myanmar's elephants were being killed for their skin, Stewart-Cox says she was also stunned by the scope of the problem laid out in the new report.

“These are horrifying statistics, and all of us here are shocked by them,” she says.

Skin For Sale

Why would someone want elephant skin badly enough to kill for it?

Pachyderm skin, it turns out, is among the many animal products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It's ground into a powder and mixed into a paste that is believed to treat skin fungi and infection, as well as intestinal diseases. “Skin is also being turned into beads, and made into bracelets or necklaces said to have certain properties that would be beneficial to the skin of the wearer,” says Stewart-Cox. Despite the elephant’s enormous size, numerous local sources reported to McEvoy and colleagues that the meat trade is dominated by the trunk and genitalia.

Butchering an elephant and getting its skin and meat to market quickly is no small task. The efficiency with which these poaching activities appear to be carried out suggests to McEvoy that it isn't the work of amateurs or opportunists. Burmese working with the team report that the poachers are organized and well-funded, and that elephant meat and skins quickly make their way across the border to China, where a growing trade in ivory and elephant parts has been documented.

“There's obviously a lot of money involved,” McEvoy says. “We've been working with our local partner organizations for 30 years, everything we do is based on their work, and we've been hearing from them that poachers may pay thousands of U.S. dollars just for information on the location of an elephant.”

Here, human-elephant conflict may again be part of the problem. “Most of the dead elephants that we've found were in places where there is a lot of conflict,” Leimgruber says. “Now, these are areas where there are a lot of elephants and they are easy to find. At the same time, some of the villagers there may not be so unhappy if poachers shoot one of these elephants because they can be a big problem for them. So at this point it's difficult to sort out whether there is a retaliatory component to this or not."

At this stage it’s unclear just how big the problem is, says Alex Diment, an ecologist and senior technical advisor for Wildlife Conservation Society's Myanmar Program. The number of elephants poached for skin appears to be increasing, but some of that may be due to increased communication in Myanmar. Mobile phones have become common in recent years, he adds. According to government statistics, 59 elephants were found dead in 2017; the majority of them had been poached.

There is also the chance that the grim practice of skin poaching has already spread beyond the borders of Myanmar, to places like Thailand or Cambodia. “We don't know the full extent of this,” Leimgruber says. “That's the fear. If this has been going on for a while, undetected, and we come across it now almost accidentally, what is the true scale? … From that perspective I think we have to treat it as a very serious threat that could have a major impact on the long-term conservation of these animals across the range.”

For the Smithsonian team, there may be a silver lining to their work. At least in Myanmar, It may be that finding ways for humans and elephants to live more harmoniously will make things harder for poachers, by starving them of any local assistance. “When we’ve done community surveys the vast majority of people say they want to have elephants around,” says McEvoy. “They just want to find a way to live with them peacefully.”

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