Demand for Elephant Skin Driving up Poaching in Burma

By Shreya Dasgupta 7 June 2017

A new elephant poaching “crisis” is emerging in Burma, WWF announced yesterday.

In addition to targeting wild elephants for their tusks, poachers are now killing elephants for their skin. The hide is reportedly being used for traditional medicine or is being turned into jewelry.

Since 2013, more than 100 elephants have been killed for their skin, WWF said. In the first few months of this year alone poachers have killed at least 20 elephants, surpassing the yearly average elephant poaching rate for Burma. Each animal, killed with poisoned darts, was skinned or close to being skinned, Rohit Singh, Global Wildlife Law Enforcement Specialist at WWF, told Mongabay.

“Elephant skins have been in the market for the past few years, but we recently noticed a sudden increase in demand,” Singh said. “While reasons behind this surge in demand remain unknown, we are seeing this reflected in the numbers of wild elephants found killed and skinned.”

Fewer than 2,000 wild elephants are estimated to survive in the country now. And this recent elephant skin fad could cause their populations to collapse, conservationists warn.

Ivory poaching in Asian countries typically targets tusked male elephants since females usually lack tusks. In Burma, this has resulted in a skewed sex ratio of the wild elephant populations. But now, with an increase in demand for elephant skin and teeth, mothers and calves are also being killed.

“This additional pressure on young ones and breeding females will have serious amplifications on the future survival of this species in Burma,” Singh said. “This is why it is so important to put a stop to this crisis now, before Burma’s wild elephant populations become biologically unviable.”

The recent surge in poaching for elephant skin is being exacerbated by weak law enforcement. For example, when AFP reporters visited Golden Rock, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma, they found several shops openly selling slices of elephant skin for just a few dollars per square inch of skin.

Shutting down these markets, and increasing protection for the elephants is key to combatting the illegal wildlife trade, WWF said.

“We urgently need to deploy ranger squads into key priority areas where the elephants are being poached from—Bago Yoma and Irrawaddy Delta,” Singh said. “These ranger squads will be well-trained and equipped to defend the remaining elephants. In the mid- to long-term, more can be done to put a stop to illegal trade of wildlife in Burma and the region. In Burma, we want to work with the government to close down the key markets where illegal wildlife products are sold.”

To help put a stop to elephant poaching, WWF has launched a #SaveTheirSkins campaign.

“We are witnessing the perfect storm for wild elephants in Burma,” Christy Williams, Country Director of WWF-Burma, said in a statement. “We urge people and governments across this region to come together to support increased protection for the last remaining wild Asian elephants in Burma and beyond.”

Shreya Dasgupta is a science and environmental writer based in India. A former wildlife researcher, she writes about animals, conservation, biology, people and places. This article was originally published in Mongabay.