Blood beads: the trade that could tip Asia’s elephants toward extinction

Press Release – 1 October 2018

New pictures found online this September by the UK-based conservation charity Elephant Family reveal the continuation of a gruesome trade that could – if left unchecked – signal the extinction of Asia’s endangered elephants.

One image shows a trader holding two arcs of dried Asian elephant skin up to the light. To prove that the product is genuine, he’s showing off the deep subcutaneous layers rich in blood vessels that lie beneath the more familiar rough and wrinkled outer layer of grey elephant skin. Marked with circles, the layers are ready to be cut into beads that will be polished to a high shine and turned into bracelets and necklaces. Marketed as traditional wenwan jewellery (a kind of collectible curio) these grisly ‘blood beads’ are being sold to a predominantly Chinese market and threaten a species protected under international law.

In April, evidence gathered by Elephant Family in Myanmar and China revealed the alarming escalation in the illegal trade in Asian elephant skin to the world. The report – ‘Skinned: The Growing Appetite for Asian Elephants’ – exposed the methods of those who are trading, promoting and profiting from elephant skin products.

The first to investigate the elephant skin trade chain, Elephant Family has been studying the illegal trade in Asian elephants since 2014 through research, analysis and field investigations. The discovery of the latest online advertising of Asian elephant skin products has galvanized the charity to take further action.

This October two international conferences focusing on wildlife trade – the CITES* 70th Standing Committee meeting in Sochi, Russia Oct 1-5th and the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) conference in London Oct 11-12th – provide important platforms from which to champion Asia’s elephants.

“Our aims are to have the plight of the Asian elephant recognised at an international level, bringing greater attention to poaching and illegal trade – especially skins – and to ensure that the protection of the species is adequately enforced,” says Conservation Programmes Manager, Caitlin Melidonis. “The Asian elephant is already afforded the highest level of protection under international law (Appendix I) but it is imperative that the protection on paper translates into protection on the ground.”

The team will set out the key findings of their investigations into the Asian elephant skin trade and propose a number of recommendations while at CITES to help strengthen protection for Asia’s elephants – a species often overlooked in discussions where ivory trade impacting their African cousins takes centre stage. Yet, with Asian elephant populations currently at around 10 per cent that of their African counterparts (Asian elephant estimates c. 46,000 compared to African elephant estimates c.415,000) action is urgently required if we are to protect this vulnerable and increasingly fragmented species.

“Skin trade is a major and developing threat to Asian elephants across their range and traffickers are actively developing new ways to market elephant skin products and selling them to willing consumers,” adds Caitlin Melidonis.  “As we have seen with the trade in other species, parallel legal markets threaten wild species, frustrate law enforcement and facilitate the laundering of wild, poached animals into a legal market.”

Elephant Family urges all Asian elephant range States to take urgent measures to address this developing threat before it engulfs them.

“We cannot risk Asian elephants being subjected to the levels of killing and trade seen with other species – too few of them survive and too many of their populations are fragile. There is already a crisis for the wild elephants of Myanmar and if the trade escalates further, Asian elephants could quickly disappear across most of their range,” adds Elephant Family’s Director of Conservation, Belinda Stewart-Cox OBE.

*CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

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Elephant Family is an international NGO dedicated to protecting the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild. In the last fifty years their population has roughly halved and 90% of their habitat has disappeared. Poaching, a growing skin trade, and demand for wild-caught babies for tourism remain a constant threat along with the deadly and escalating conflict between people and elephants for living space and food. Elephant Family funds pioneering projects across Asia to reconnect forest fragments, prevent conflict and fight wildlife crime. Since 2002 Elephant Family has funded over 180 conservation projects and raised over £15m through public art events for this iconic yet endangered animal.
Elephant Family investigative reports website:


Asian elephants are found across 13 range states and number c. 46,282. The largest population of wild elephants, c27,312,  live in fragmented pockets in the south west, north and north east of India, the smallest population of c.118 live in Vietnam.

Pregnant for 22 months – breeding females have one calf every 2 to 4 years. As a slow breeding species losing breeding females and calves is a sure fire route to extinction. Female calves tend to stay with the herd while males disperse at between 9-12 years old.

Smaller than their African cousins only adult males carry tusks, few big tuskers remain.

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