It was the smell that put off the men and women charged with converting the subcutaneous fat from freshly slaughtered elephants into ruby red beads. It was noxious. Acrid. The fumes were stomach-churning as the workers in China spent hours curing then polishing translucent beads of fat that often didn’t retain their shape.
One trader told investigators with Elephant Family, a conservation watchdog based in London, England, that it took him an entire day to produce one bead.
There was also another problem: The fat beads weren’t very durable. When they came into contact with human skin—around the neck or wrist—they would sweat.
Even so, a report out today from Elephant Family finds that the trade in elephant skins—for medicinal powders and pills and for jewelry—has mushroomed since 2018. That’s when Elephant Family and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—the Smithsonian’s global conservation research arm—first described the commercial elephant skin trade in two separate reports. They noted that elephants were being killed and skinned in Myanmar and that the skins were sold in marketplaces and on social media platforms in China.
But now, according to the new Elephant Family report, the burgeoning industry seems to have spread from Myanmar throughout a larger swath of Southeast Asia, including not only China but also Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The beads are sold in Myanmar and China, and skin products for traditional cures in all five countries.
Elephant Family’s previous report, published in April 2018, revealed that one person appeared to be behind the bead trade, at least initially. That trader, whom they called “Jaz,” posted about beads in an online discussion board in 2014; it “generated 23 follow-up responses indicating that the trade in elephant skin beads was novel and little-known,” according to the report. The elephant beads are made in the style of traditional Chinese collectibles, known as wenwan. Exactly who wants them remains unknown.
The new report notes that some traders said their elephant skins came from captive elephant populations in the region, not from Myanmar’s dense jungles. Managers at one family-run traditional-medicine shop said their skins came from “zoos.” Another trader said his skins came from captive elephant populations in China.
“This trade is continuing, increasing, and geographically spreading. It’s substantial,” says Dave Augeri, a biologist and head of conservation at Elephant Family.
To report on the elephant skin trade, Elephant Family conducted in-country interviews, gathered information online, and sent out undercover investigators who attempted to buy products. The investigators talked to sellers, manufacturers, poachers, and law enforcement officers. They used local dialects and colloquialisms to help mask their identities, Augeri explains.
“I laud the Elephant Family for shining an international spotlight on the issue through this report,” Christy Williams, the country director for World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Myanmar, who was not involved with the report, said in an email. “What stands out is what we predicted—the trade is now spreading to other countries, which is extremely worrying.”
Last March, the Smithsonian team described the toll of this industry in the journal PLOS One: Seven of the 19 collared elephants they’d been tracking in a mountainous area of Myanmar were poached within a year of being fitted with GPS collars. When researchers went to investigate, they found that at least 19 elephants—including the seven with satellite-tracking collars—had died or disappeared within about a 20-square-mile area. The deaths all occurred in less than two years, they said. In addition, 40 more elephants from surrounding areas across south-central Myanmar soon increased that tally.
For elephant skin products, poachers target adults and calves alike—a blow to Asian elephants. Their lack of tusks has allowed them to fare better than African elephants, poached at alarming rates for the global ivory market. (Among Asian Elephants, only males can grow tusks, and very few of them actually develop them.)
About 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, less than a tenth the estimated number of African elephants. The number of non-captive elephants in Myanmar is low—fewer than 2,000 roaming the country’s thick forests. Lately, local authorities have been stepping up their patrols to protect these last holdouts from poachers. Indeed, Elephant Family cites information from the Myanmar government reporting that fewer elephants—18—were poached in 2018, eight fewer than the year before.
But, Augeri says, “a one-year decline may not indicate a continual decrease.” It could be a blip, and we don’t know if it will increase again, particularly with the growing online sales of these products.
Commercial exploitation of elephant skins isn’t entirely new. The wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic reported that as far back as 2006 that small quantities of elephant powder to be rubbed onto a person’s skin to help treat rashes and other conditions were sold openly in markets in Mong La, a Myanmar town on the border with China. But the trade has intensified since 2014, when elephant skin jewelry first came on the market.
Elephant Family explains that elephants targeted for the skin trade are typically killed with poisoned arrows and die a slow, painful death as the fatal substance—likely made from pesticides or plants—floods the body and drives the dying animal, in desperation, to seek water. Carcasses often are found near or in water (potentially contaminating villagers’ supplies).
Elephant skin traders selling powders or beads appear to have moved almost all their wares online, perhaps partly because Chinese authorities have cracked down and sellers have become more wary, Elephant Family says. Their investigators were told that there had been enforcement raids in China just six months after the publication of their earlier report and that shopkeepers either didn’t have skin products in stock or were unwilling to show them to unfamiliar buyers.
The Elephant Family investigation tallied at least a hundred online elephant skin traders—including suppliers, skin bead manufacturers, and skin powder producers—who advertise across 27 forums using more than 200 accounts.
The researchers also found that sellers have expanded their promotional efforts from China’s popular online platforms such as WeChat and Baidu to Facebook groups connected to Laos, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Myanmar, Augeri says.
The powder trade appears to be much larger than the bead trade, in part because it’s easier to avoid detection with beads, Augeri says. “You can always claim the powder is made from a legal species,” such as certain plants.
Elephant Family’s undercover work also found that traditional medicine sellers have recently started selling elephant skin powder that they say is mixed with powder made from pangolin scales—a troubling trend, if confirmed, since pangolins are already believed to be the world’s most trafficked nonhuman mammal. It’s possible that millions of pangolins are killed each year.
The report describes how one shop sold pills consisting primarily of elephant skin but also ground pangolin scales, labeled as “ancient recipe for stomach ailments.” An investigator saw a customer come in and buy some. (Elephant Family did not test the substances to verify what animals were used in the mix.)
Williams says that so far the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Myanmar has not observed the same trend. “We’ve seen evidence of pangolin powder, but not as yet seen a mixture of pangolin and elephant skin.”
Elephant Family’s findings come ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference that begins August 17 in Geneva, Switzerland. There, the status of the African elephant will be a major discussion point for the 183 parties to the treaty, with countries considering a number of proposals that could affect the extent to which ivory sales are allowed. No proposals have been submitted specifically relating to the skin trade; however a larger discussion about the threat posed by the illegal trade in Asian elephant parts—including skin—is on the agenda. Still, Williams says, “This report will draw international attention to the issue. Going forward we need to ensure there is a specific proposal on the skinning threat.”
Until then, he fears, the growing trade in fat beads—even if they quickly degrade—alongside skin pieces, and traditional medicinal powders may continue to flourish.