Save Our Skins

“The use of elephant skin in Asia is not new. Surveys by the nongovernmental organization Traffic found elephant skin openly on sale in Mayanmar’s Mong La market in 2006,2009, and 2014, with ever larger quantities on show each year. Yet these findings, and their implications for Asian elephant conservation, were overshadowed by the conservation world’s focus on the poaching of elephants for ivory and, as a result, solely on efforts to save African elephants.”

Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. Report by Elephant Family, April 2018

If you ask people what the leading threat to elephants is, most will likely respond: “ivory poaching”.  But if you take a look at the pictures posted throughout this blog, you will see that this does not pose a risk to the majority of Asian elephants, which have no tusks.  All females and most calves are tuskless, and some males as well. Instead, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflicts with people, smuggling of live babies and now lately – poaching for skin.

Warning: this post contains graphic content.

Ironically, as the ivory market cools off due thanks to domestic bans in both the US and China it appears that traders may be looking to create new products for their customers. It’s like when ice cream and soda companies add new flavors to their lineup just to sell a product their customers never knew they wanted or needed. The latest product being peddled is elephant skin, in the form of powders and bead bracelets.

It’s starting in the forests of Myanmar, with the skinned carcasses of elephants of all ages being found strewn here and there, including animals that had been fitted with tracking devices for research, as reported in this recent paper by Christie Sampson and colleagues.

Skinned elephant. Figure 4 from Sampson et al. 2018.

Severed parts of the trunk, figure 5 from Sampson et al. 2018.

The Smithsonian researchers found 7 of their 19 collared elephants had been poached for skin and an additional 40 dead in surrounding areas.  The trend released by the authorities in Myanmar is alarming: from fewer than 10 deaths in 2010 to around 60 per year in both 2016 and 2017. The entire wild elephant population of Myanmar is thought to number only around 2000 individuals according to the 2016 CITES report, you do the math.

A report released by the nonprofit Elephant Family last month delves into this relatively new and disturbing phenomenon. Any guesses on where the skin goes?

The raw materials can be bought in person at a border town called Mong La, located on the Myanmar side of the China-Myanmar border and controlled by militants. Mong La has been a hub for illegal wildlife trafficking for some time, with plentiful documentation (see here , here , here and here). But it looks like elephant parts are on the uptick, right alongside other grisly items from other unfortunate victims.

Now the traders have also moved online, which potentially opens it up to a much wider range of consumers. So far, it appears the latter are largely within China, and the traffickers openly state that the skin comes from Asian elephants. China has denounced the report and voiced concerns about the accuracy of the information within it, including details such as whether the sources are Asian or African elephants (I hear echoes of the ivory debates here). In powdered form it can be difficult to tell. But from what I can see from the pictures of raw skin fragments, they show at least one clearly Asian feature, de-pigmentation:

Images taken from the Elephant Family report and provided by Alex Hofford show signs of depigmentation, a feature unique to Asian elephants. But they are difficult to see without a trained eye. Composite by S. de Silva.

This bull shows his pink depigmentation most clearly after a bath…

…But it is harder to see when the skin is covered in mud or dust, even on the same animal.

But de-pigmentation is only found on some parts of the body, such as the face, neck trunk and ears, and even then not on all individuals. So it’s not a reliable indicator of species for most samples, even visually. But we have skinned elephant carcasses in Myanmar, and skin products appearing in China. Could there be two dots more easy to connect? I’m sure a more thorough look at the physiology and genetic markers would put that issue to rest immediately.

There are 10 times fewer Asian elephants alive than African elephants, and one of the reasons they’ve been able to hang on this long is that females and calves as well as many males have been sheltered from the ivory poaching crisis due to their lack of tusks. The skin trade, if unchecked, will burn through Asian elephant populations like wildfire because they can now become indescrimate targets. Our studies show that elephant populations may reproduce extremely slowly, even more slowly than they are physically capable of. A female requires at least three years to produce a calf, but the average may be longer than six. So before the populations are numerically wiped out, the loss of breeding females and calves mean they can go demographically extinct.

Yes, there is clearly a need for law enforcement. But let’s not forget the buyers. If there is any good news from the ivory saga, it’s that the conservation world has had plenty of time to work on its demand-reduction tactics. That’s what we need now, before this epidemic spreads. This trade is already illegal, so let’s not waste time haggling over details and rhetoric. Let’s work together, there’s no time to waste.


de Silva, S., Webber, C. E., Weerathunga, U. S., Pushpakumara, T. V., Weerakoon, D. K., & Wittemyer, G. (2013). Demographic variables for wild Asian elephants using longitudinal observations. PLoS One8(12), e82788. [Full text]

Elephant  Family 2018. Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. [Full report]

Sampson, C., McEvoy, J., Oo, Z. M., Chit, A. M., Chan, A. N., Tonkyn, D., … & Wittemyer, G. (2018). New elephant crisis in Asia—Early warning signs from Myanmar. PloS one13(3), e0194113. [Full text]

Nijman, V., & Shepherd, C. R. (2015). Trade in tigers and other wild cats in Mong La and Tachilek, Myanmar–A tale of two border towns. Biological Conservation182, 1-7. [Full text]

Shepherd, C. R., & Nijman, V. (2007). An assessment of wildlife trade at Mong La market on the Myanmar-China border. Traffic Bulletin21(2), 85-88. [Full text]

Nijman, V., Zhang, M. X., & Shepherd, C. R. (2016). Pangolin trade in the Mong La wildlife market and the role of Myanmar in the smuggling of pangolins into China. Global Ecology and Conservation5, 118-126. [Full text]

Nijman, V., & Shepherd, C. R. (2014). Emergence of Mong La on the Myanmar–China border as a global hub for the international trade in ivory and elephant parts. Biological Conservation179, 17-22. [Full text]

Further Reading



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