Asia-Pacific

'It’s a terrible sight': Calls to stop skinning of elephants in Myanmar

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With reports that one elephant is killed by poachers every week in Myanmar and the price of their skin on the rise, conservation groups fear the practice threatens the species future.

In Myanmar poachers are killing elephants, removing their skin and selling it at Chinese street markets. Conservation groups have warned the practice of elephant skinning threatens a species extinction.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Country Director Christy Williams works in Myanmar monitoring Asian elephant populations and recently co-authored a report on the ‘skinning crisis’.

He told SBS News about the horror of seeing a dead elephant carcass in the wild with its skin removed.

"It’s a terrible sight. I have seen poached elephants and once it is just killed it is really horrific. You need to have a very strong stomach to see it,” he said.

“With this poaching, they’re going after everything from young baby calves, to juvenile elephants and adults... We need to take action or we’ll lose them forever.”

The carcass of Elephant 201601 was located on May 18th, 2016 in a rubber plantation.
The carcass of Elephant 201601 was located on May 18th, 2016 in a rubber plantation.
Christie Sampson - Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

The WWF is running a campaign in response to the growing problem. Myanmar has one of the biggest Asian elephant populations in the region with up to 5,000 elephants.

One elephant is lost in Myanmar every week from poaching on average, according to the campaign.

The initiative warns that elephant meat is being sold in markets and used for trinkets, medicine and jewellery.

Elephants killed for their skin

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) has been studying Asian elephants in Myanmar’s southern Bago Yoma mountain range for 20 years.

Its report, 'New elephant crisis in Asia – Early warning signs from Myanmar’, co-authored by Mr Williams paints a grim picture for the survival of the species. 

According to Mr Williams researchers found out about the new crisis of slaughtered and deskinned elephants by accident.

“This is a problem that is happening without people even realising it and that’s why we did this campaign.”

The researchers had placed GPS trackers on 19 elephants but were horrified when seven of their collared animals were killed within the year.

The study from December 2014 to March 2017 was tracking the protected species to examine the way humans and elephants coexist.

The researcher's further investigations found more than 50 dead elephant carcasses killed by poachers over a three year period across south-central Myanmar.

map shows elephants lost at the Bago Yoma field site, including collared and uncollared elephants.
map shows elephants lost at the Bago Yoma field site, including collared and uncollared elephants.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

China ‘hotspot’ for elephant skin

Elephant meat and skin poached in Myanmar quickly goes across the country’s border, according to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Organisation.

World Wildlife Fund Country Director Christy Williams said markets in towns on the Myanmar-China border such as Mong La are "hot spots" for illegal wildlife trade.

“The price has shot up tremendously. Fifteen years ago they found the price of elephant skins in southern China and along the borders was roughly US$10 to US$20 a kilogram.”

“Today one kilogram of elephant skin costs nearly US$120.”

Mr Williams said the poached elephant skin is used in Chinese local medicine to treat skin infections and stomach ailments.

“It’s largely been used as a powder and mixed with some kind of herb paste and used for the treatment of dry skin,” he said.

Mr Williams said two years ago his local expert found only a few market stalls selling the elephant skin products.

“When she did the same survey earlier this year she found 80 percent of the shops in the morning market were now carrying elephant skin.” 

Dried elephant skin that would be sold at a market.
Dried elephant skin that would be sold at a market.
World Wildlife Fund

Elephants skin demand rising

Clare Campbell is the Executive Director for Wildlife Asia, a group whose wildlife protection units patrol forests in south-west Myanmar’s Karen State.

Ms Campbell told SBS News the problem is getting worse. She agreed the threat infiltrating Myanmar could force the Asian elephants to extinction.

“The demand is coming from China. The demand for skin has always existed but it’s only really recently that demand has just gone crazy,” she said.

“It is an alarming threat. Everyone is familiar with the threat of ivory poaching... but the most alarming thing about the skin trade is it is completely indiscriminate.”

Example of elephin skin that would be sold at a street market.
Example of elephin skin that would be sold at a street market.
World Wildlife Fund

All elephants now at risk

In January China banned the sale of ivory elephant products. Unlike African elephants, only male Asian elephants have tusks. 

Wildlife Asia’s Clare Campbell said the indiscriminate nature of the skin trade means female elephants are now just as vulnerable as males to poaching.

“If you want to send a species to extinction taking out females and calves is a sure way to do it."

She said increasing awareness about the problem is essential to getting local governments in the region to crackdown on poachers and the skin trade.

“We need the support really quickly if we’re going to save elephants from extinction.”

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