Klaus Reisinger, a filmmaker who works with Chit, believes the true number of elephants slaughtered to be much higher. “Whenever one dead elephant is reported, it means there are three more. The scale is unprecedented—I’ve never seen anything like it. We filmed a herd of 50 in the Ayeyawady region. Now they’re gone.”
Jayasinghe warns that if the elephant skin trade spreads, the results will be “devastating”—in particular because, unlike with ivory poachers, the female elephants will also be targets. (Only male elephants have tusks.) The polygamous elephants can survive with fewer males as long as the females are left alone. But if the females become targets, “that’s the surest way to drive a species to extinction very rapidly,” said Peter Leimgruber, a Smithsonian biologist.
The use of elephant skin for medicine in tribal areas is not new. It has been used in traditional medicines for eczema and various stomach ailments for some time. However, the use of skins for jewelry is. Traders cut small blocks of dried skin, run them through bead-cutting machines, and polish them. When polished, they look like a red amber.
The Bago Yoma forests, home to many Myanmar elephants that are in danger of being poached for their skin, has opened the Bago Yoma Eco Resort in an effort to open the area up for tourism. pic.twitter.com/q2eK8oOGNz
— Visit Myanmar (@MyanmarTM) December 15, 2017
The redder the beads, the more desirable. Even poor-quality bead necklaces are selling for more than $100. Raw elephant skin is selling for $29 a pound—up ten-fold from a decade ago. All told, the skin of one elephant can fetch about $30,000.
“That’s the worrying thing,” said Christy Williams, country director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Myanmar office. “When these things take off, they take off quickly.”