World Elephant Day: Poaching of elephants for their skin could wipe them out

Poaching elephants for their skins to use in Asian medicine, will not just target males but also females and calves 

When someone says the word ‘elephant conservation’, it usually conjures the images of African Savannahs, elephant carcasses lying on the baking earth, their tusks missing.

Most efforts to conserve elephants are directed towards preventing the illegal ivory trade, especially in African elephants.

This World Elephant Day though, we at Down To Earth would like to turn the spotlight from Africa to Asia. Now, Asian elephants usually do not have tusks. The females do not have them at all. While the males may develop them or may not.

Three years ago, international media was agog with reports of elephants in Asia, more specifically in Myanmar, falling prey to a new sort of poaching: for their skins.

Yes. You heard that right. Elephant skin. The culprit here, is China and Southeast Asia.

In 2018, UK based non-profit ‘Elephant Family’, released an investigative report detailing this trade of jumbo skin. The report was called Skinned The growing appetite for Asian elephants.

This report revealed for the first time, numerous aspects of poaching and skinning of wild elephants in Myanmar and its trade to China and Southeast Asia. In 2010 poachers had killed 10 elephants in Myanmar, but by 2017 Myanmar was losing about 5 elephants every month, mainly because of the skin trade.

Apparently, elephant skin has been used for a long time in traditional Chinese and Southeast Asian medicine as a remedy for skin ailments: the skin is dried, ground, mixed with oils, and applied to treat eczema and other skin conditions.

The report noted how elephants were found in forested areas of Myanmar, mostly near water bodies, with their skins ripped apart from their bodies.

Further investigation revealed the reasons. The elephants had been killed not with fire arms because of heavy penalties on gun ownership in Myanmar. Instead, poachers used arrows and spears tipped with poison.

When hit with such missiles, the poison would spread inside the wounded animal and it would desire water. It would seek out the nearest water body and die beside it in a painful and excruciating death. Its body would in turn pollute the water supply for local residents.

Why was this happening in Myanmar of all countries? The reason is the opening up of the country recently. As long as it was under the rule of the military junta, the country’s wildlife was more or less secure.

But with the junta giving way to a civilian government and the economy opening up, people became more demanding in their lifestyles. Moreover, people moved into forests and wildlife habitat that were more or less protected. This also brought them into contact with elephants. The lure of easy money as well as the desire to do away with elephants who were a threat to newly reclaimed areas for farming was the cause of rise in elephant poaching.

Most reports traced the trade in elephant skins to Mong La, a frontier city located in the so-called Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The region is also very near to China, the major player in the trade.

Further investigations revealed that the elephant skins were not just being used for making powder to cure skin ailments but also to make jewellery and beads and necklaces for people. In fact, the poaching for elephants for their skins had seen a rise since 2014 which was also the time when beads and necklaces made from elephant skin entered the market.

While conservationists across the world are worried about what this would mean for the Asian elephant, which numbers less than 50,000 in the wild, we in India should especially be worried. We are home to 60 per cent of Asia’s wild elephants.

The trade in elephant skin will mean that unlike the trade in ivory, not just male elephants but adult females and calves too will be killed. Hence, there will no longer be a skewed sex ratio of more females and less males but the entire extirpation of the species.

And signs are that this trade is spreading to other parts of southeast Asia as well. While not much has been reported on it in the past year, it is very much possible that it is happening even as I speak.

So it is upto Asian governments to stand up and protect the continent’s last remaining pachyderms, before they disappear altogether

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