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.
This trade is continuing, increasing, and geographically spreading. It’s substantial.
Dave Augeri, 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.)
Elephants targeted for the skin trade are killed with poisoned arrows and die