BANGKOK -- Once targeted for their ivory tusks, Asia's already endangered elephants are facing a new threat to their survival: Poachers in Myanmar and elsewhere are selling their hides to be turned into purported cures for stomach ulcers and cancer as well as jewelry and prayer beads for sale in China. Elsewhere, the skins are being turned into luxury leather goods from golf bags and designer boots to wallets, belts and even motorcycle seats.
Trafficking in Asian elephant hides has grown over the past four years from small-scale sales of skins to a wholesale commercial trade. In Asia, this includes sales on open, online forums as well as by some Chinese pharmaceutical companies, according to the U.K.-based wildlife conservation group Elephant Family, which believes most of the Chinese products come from illegally traded Asian elephant hides. Legally licensed trade in hides from four African countries is strictly controlled and regulated.
Conservationists fear that elephant skin may even begin to replace ivory as a motive for poaching, and that any legal trade provides a loop-hole for illegal trade. For these reasons, they have urged countries to completely ban its importation.
A detailed report by the group, released Tuesday in Bangkok, traces the trafficking trail from hunters in Myanmar to operations there and in Laos where the skins are cut or ground into powder and then smuggled into China. In an earlier report, the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature warned that elephant skinning may have spread to Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.
Elephant Family's field researchers early this year found elephant products on sale in China's Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian provinces. In Guangzhou, the vast seaport in Guangdong Province, the team met with traders who were clearly aware that dealing with Asian elephant skin was illegal. "These products were not visibly on display but when asked, traders produced them, one from a plastic bag on a top shelf," the report said.
Chinese medicine packaging touting the use of elephant skin powders (Courtesy of Elephant Family)
Monitoring online sites, the researchers found advertising for elephant hide products on forums like Baidu and identified at least 43 traders on the popular Chinese messaging platform WeChat. Messages extolled use of the products for stomach ailments and as a blood coagulant as well as for bracelets and necklaces made from the dried skin.
The overall value of the elephant hide trade is not known and prices vary, but the Elephant Family report said skin pieces were quoted online for $190 per kg, excluding delivery, and elephant skin powder for about $425 per kg. "The trade is clearly valuable enough for some people to be pushing it -- to do their best to create more demand to encourage sales," said Elephant Family's head of conservation, Belinda Stewart-Cox.
Dried elephant skins being carved into beads (Courtesy of Elephant Family)
Sold in one piece, the hide of one adult elephant, depending on size and skin quality, could raise as much as $30,000. When processed into individual products, this could multiply 10 times in market value to as much as $300,000, she said, while warning that inflated or "cherry-picked" estimates could prompt speculative poaching.
While parts from wild animals -- from pangolins to rhinoceroses and elephants -- have long been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, the use of elephant hides for jewelry and other luxury products is a relatively recent development that is providing new incentive for illicit traders.
The Myanmar government has said that at least 59 elephant carcasses were found in the wilds last year, up from four in 2010, in a country that conservationists describe as one of the last remaining places in Asia with wildlands suitable for sustainable elephant populations.
Myanmar's wild elephant population has fallen dramatically, from an estimated 10,000 in the 1940s to less than 2,000 today. Between 30,000 to 50,000 wild Asian elephants are found in 13 Asian countries, according to the researchers.
"Asia's elephant populations are becoming increasingly fragmented and fragile. A trade that targets any elephant, of any age, could spell disaster for this endangered, slow breeding species," said Stewart-Cox.
Elephant Family, with Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla serving as joint presidents, implements conservation projects in seven Asian countries.
"With this report our intention is not to apportion blame but to turn the spotlight onto the escalation of the trade and to call for the collaboration of governments, civil society and the wider public to tackle the issue before it threatens the survival of Asia's elephants," said Stewart-Cox.
Although still the world's largest consumer of wildlife products, China has in recent years stepped up arrests of wildlife traffickers and taken other measures to curb the elephant trade. It is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and from Jan. 1 this year banned all trade in ivory and ivory products. As a leading market for ivory, Beijing's decision was hailed by some as an important move to protect the world's elephant population.
But the report expressed concern that China's State Forestry Administration had apparently issued licenses for manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products containing elephant skin which are being sold by several companies.
"Time will tell whether the anticipated ivory trade prompts an increased appetite for replacements from other species or other elephant parts," the report said.
In Myanmar several significant initiatives have been spurred by warnings that the country will lose its wild population in a few years if the current rate of killing -- one elephant a week -- continues.
With help from international organizations, the government in February launched a 10-year Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan to secure the elephant population.
As part of the program, WWF will train, equip and deploy 10 anti-poaching teams to the most vulnerable areas. Separately, a Washington D.C.-based group, The Elephant Project, in March announced plans to establish a network of sanctuaries under a public-private partnership program worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Myanmar, providing for the relocation and care of Asian elephants in the country and translocation of some to regional countries.