Demand for elephant skin, trunk and penis drives rapid rise in poaching in Myanmar


Axel Kronholm, The Guardian

Date Published
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Case files and laminated photos of poachers spill out of captain Than Naing’s folder. As the chief of police in Okekan township, one of Myanmar’s recent poaching hotspots, he is trying to track down the men who have killed at least three elephants in the area over the past year. So far, he has arrested 11 people suspected of having assisted the poachers. Meanwhile the poachers themselves remain at large.

“These are the two men who we believe killed one of the elephants,” he says, pointing to two photos. “They are still on the run.”

Reported cases of killed elephants in Myanmar have increased dramatically since 2010, with a total of 112 wild elephant deaths, most of them in the past few years. In 2015 alone, 36 wild elephants were killed, according to official figures from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The figures for 2016 are feared to be even worse.

Neighbouring China is the main destination for elephant products. Despite the ivory ban imposed by the Chinese government earlier this year, ivory is still the most valuable part of the elephant. But worryingly conservationists are now seeing a growing demand for other parts of the animal; trunks, feet, even the penis, to be used in traditional medicine. The hide or skin, which is believed to be a remedy for eczema, is particularly in demand.

Most elephants are killed in Pathein and Ngapudaw townships in Irrawaddy division – which is a major habitat for wild elephants – but recent killings have also been reported on both sides of the Bago mountain range in central Myanmar, as well as in Mandalay division.

In November, villagers in Okekan township discovered an elephant that had been skinned and mutilated, and alerted the authorities.

“It was found on the outskirts of Chaung Sauk village, drifting in a creek,” says Kyaw Hlaing Win, the village tract administrator, who believes there are a lot more elephants killed than what is reported. “We’ve had at least nine or 10 elephants killed in the past few years here.”

The hunters shoot elephants with arrows dipped in poison, and then follow the animal around as it meets its slow and agonising death, before skinning it and hacking off the saleable parts.

The poachers operate in small gangs, often persuading local villagers to work as their guides or helpers.

“Many gangs are coming from central Myanmar. Some include people from the ethnic Chin minority; they are good hunters,” says Saw Htoo Tha Po, senior technical coordinator at WCS . “They will make contact with the local villagers who know where the elephants roam, and either hire or pressure the villagers to work together with them.”

So far this year, at least 20 elephant corpses have been found stripped of their skin, the World Wildlife Fund told AFP.

“Previously they would be hunted for their tusks, but as the male elephant population decreases the poachers will now kill any elephant they can find and sell other parts: the skin, the trunk, the feet or the penis, all of which is in demand in the Chinese market,” says Saw Htoo Tha Po. “The meat under the foot is supposed to be especially tasty, and the other products are consumed for their perceived medicinal qualities.”

There is little data on Myanmar’s wildlife trade, and no reliable figures on how much poachers are paid.

But a visit to the tourist-oriented Bogyoke Market in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, gives a hint of how lucrative the trade can be. While many vendors display fake ivory bracelets, a couple of shops off the main market lane offer real ivory trinkets and jewellery, as well as elephant teeth. One vendor sold elephant teeth for between US$140 and $250 per tooth, depending on the size. No doubt an inflated figure pre-haggle given to a perusing tourist, but nevertheless an indicator of the potentially large market value.

Research from the University of Yangon shows that even at wholesale prices, an ivory bangle can sell for more than $100, while a necklace of beads can cost up to $150. In local markets for medicinal use, elephant skin retails for 150,000 kyat (about $120) per kg, and teeth sell for about 200,000 kyat/kg.

The route to China

In an attempt to tackle the rise in poaching, the forestry department alongside the WCS has developed the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan (Mecap), which outlines 10-year priorities to protect elephants, including finding meaningful work for elephants that were previously employed in the timber industry. Legal reforms are also intended to bring Myanmar’s laws in line with international commitments like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Hunters shoot elephants with arrows dipped in poison, and then follow the animal around as it meets its death

However, the legislative process can be grindingly slow in Myanmar, and conservationists worry poaching is spiralling out of control.

“The forestry department can only efficiently patrol the protected areas, but most of the poaching is done outside of those areas,” says Saw Htoo Tha Po at WCS. “In these areas there is just not enough resources. They have a forest ranger and some office staff, but they alone cannot face off the poachers. They need more people and also reliable police to help them.”

Once an elephant is killed and has had its valuable parts cut off, the poachers will pass the products to the first in a series of brokers, who will take one of several routes to cross Myanmar’s long border with China and Thailand.

The main trafficking route for wildlife trade goes from Mandalay through Lashio and across into China from Muse. Further south, there are at least four border crossings into Thailand used by wildlife smugglers.

“There are many crossings with little enforcement,” says Dr Alex Diment, technical adviser to the wildlife trafficking team at WCS. “Even the Yangon and Mandalay international airports are easy targets for people taking small pieces of ivory to China.”

Wildlife products destined for the Chinese market are also smuggled to the border town of Mong La where everything from elephant tusks to pangolin scales is for sale. Investigations by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, the World Wildlife Fund and Oxford Brookes University have found evidence that rhinoceros horns are being openly sold in Mong La.“There is a strong likelihood that rhino horn and other wildlife products are coming across by land from India, through Myanmar, on their way to China,” says Diment.

Recently, a Vietnamese national flying in from Yangon was arrested at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport with 3kg of rhino horn. The arrest is the first solid evidence of African wildlife trafficking through Myanmar.

Elephants are endangered across Asia, with about 40,000 to 50,000 remaining in 2003, down from more than 100,000 at the start of the 20th century, according to the IUCN red list (which holds official information on threatened species worldwide). After India, Myanmar has the largest population of the Asian elephant, with as few as 1,400 wild elephants and 6,000 domesticated timber elephants.

Since the Myanmar government halted logging operations to stop deforestation in 2014, the timber elephants have also become more vulnerable to poaching or trafficking.

As China moves to implement an ivory ban by the end of this year, conservationists worry how border markets such as Mong La will be affected.

“We have already seen rapid growth of ivory available for sale in border markets, such as Mong La on the Myanmar-China border,” says Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. “It is likely that if enforcement on the Myanmar-China border at Mong La remains weak, this market will continue to flourish.”