Skin for Sale | The Continuing Appetite for Asian Elephants: Crime, Enforcement, Policy

This report is as an update of our 2018 reports covering an 18-month period, during which we continued to monitor online marketplaces, visited key locations known for illegal wildlife trade, and engaged with national and international policy-makers. For clarity and perspective, we present our latest findings in the context of our previous research.

Read the full report here.

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As in previous years, our investigators found elephant skin on sale in physical markets in China but less prevalent than before. Traders were more cautious, with talk of crackdowns in October 2018, just six months after the publication of our 2018 report “Skinned – The Growing Appetite for Asian Elephants”. Some shops no longer stocked elephant skin
products and those that did so were wary of showing them.

By contrast, online activity has increased despite a brief dip in October 2018 when any mention of elephant skin was removed from several wildlife forums and the most active site for elephant skins was shut down by its hosting domain. By November 2018 however, sites were up and running again and by May 2019 the number of subscribers to all sites dedicated to elephant skin had increased and numbers are still rising. Elephant skin traders are showing a tendency to favour online trading methods over the
more exposed physical markets.

Our investigations from 2016-2018 revealed that the skins used in illegal products were primarily sourced from Myanmar. All respondents said their elephant skins were sourced from Southeast Asia, with some specifically mentioning Myanmar. Some stated that their skin came from captive elephants in unspecified countries, although in 2019 one trader said that his skin came from a captive population in China. Given the large captive populations of Asian elephants, we cannot rule out the possibility that skin is being sourced from both captive and wild elephants.

Government agencies in Myanmar have increased their law enforcement efforts which may have reduced the poaching of wild elephants in the last two years. We applaud the governments of Myanmar and China for taking action to address this insidious trade but urge them to do more; in particular to police the smuggling routes from Myanmar to China. Most importantly, to tackle the online trade and gather evidence to prosecute and deter traders rather than simply shutting down sites.

In 2019, we made two significant and worrying discoveries. First, that powdered pangolin scales are being combined in medicines made from elephant skin powder. Pangolins are highly endangered and this finding suggests that the medicinal qualities of their scales are being touted as similar to those of elephant skin. Second, that the trade has expanded geographically with elephant skin traders selling skin products in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In our recommendations, we call on all range states to implement the commitments and requirements agreed under CITES and the Jakarta Declaration. This situation demands more effective, consistent enforcement in countries affected by the poaching and trafficking of live elephants as well as elephant parts and derivatives. And we continue to call on all range countries to implement DNA registration and databases for captive elephants. These will help track and deter their live trade as well as trade in their parts and derivatives.

Finally, we urge all Asian elephant range states, specialist groups, and non-government and inter-governmental organisations to increase the impact and pace of their efforts to protect Asian elephants. As traders develop new products that threaten this iconic species, national agencies must work harder and faster to prevent these trends from taking hold. Above all: We Must Stop Elephant Skin Becoming the New Ivory