The scourge of the skin poachers: Hideous sight of a butchered elephant exposes the sick trade in animals’ hides to feed soaring demand in China


Nancy Newman, Daily Mail

Date Published

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In a remote clearing in the rainforests of Burma, the bloodied body of an illegally killed Asian elephant lies in a fast-running mountain stream – the telltale hacking wounds of a poacher clearly visible on its flank.

But this magnificent creature is not a victim of the ivory trade.

It has been killed to feed a growing Chinese demand for elephant skin, used in medicine and to make polished beads for macabre jewellery that traders claim can ward off ill-health.

The butchered giant is just one casualty of a grotesque new trade that is resulting in an escalating number of skinned elephant carcasses being discovered in the vast jungles of the tropical country.

The Burmese government says it knows of four cases in the past few months, but unofficial sources say at least 50 animals have been killed and skinned this year alone.

These grisly photographs were taken during a risky undercover operation that was funded by Elephant Family, a British-based charity dedicated to saving the Asian elephant.

Investigators tracked the trade in elephant skin from bloodied carcasses left by poachers via an illegal market in endangered animal products in a lawless province of Burma to China, where the hide is processed and sold despite an international ban on its trade.

Alarming figures from the Burma government suggest elephant poaching in the country rose by 25 per cent between 2013 and 2015. The recent seizure of 421kg of elephant hide in south-west China – where it can command up to £45 a kilo – and multiple sightings of elephant skin stockpiles in Burma confirm the slaughter.

‘I am very concerned about this trade. It is very new,’ said Dr Khyne U Mar, an Asian elephant expert known as the Elephant Lady of Burma. ‘We recently started finding increasing amounts of cut-up, dried elephant skin.’

Posing as buyers, investigators visited a workshop known for processing endangered animal skins in a remote village in north-east Burma.

The trader told them that he had big orders for elephant hide from across the border in China.

‘I have a customer in Guangdong,’ he said. ‘I delivered 30-plus kilos of elephant skin for the first time. He sold it all, and needed to order more.’

From there, the team travelled to the notorious wildlife market at Mong La on the Burma-Chinese border – a ‘Sin City’ beyond the reach of the country’s police where gambling, prostitution, drugs and money-laundering are rife.

It also serves as a major international hub in the trade in endangered animals. ‘It was a risky trip because we were secretly filming,’ one investigator told The Mail on Sunday. ‘The traders there know what they are doing is illegal and if we had been caught, it could have been very unpleasant.

‘There is no police force and while we were walking around, we were offered tiger-bone wine from huge casks. In the market and in a number of specialist shops, there were live macaque monkeys in cages, tiger skins, a lot of ivory – much of it clearly smuggled from Africa – and piles of elephant skin openly on sale for £45 a kilo.

‘We believe traders have become wary after clampdowns on the international trade in elephant ivory and have sought to create a new market in skins.’

As well as medicine claimed to cure digestive problems, the skin is also made into jewellery – it is cut into cubes, dried and carved into polished beads. The most prized beads are shiny cherry-red, while less expensive examples range from orange to yellow.

At Mong La, the investigators were offered low-quality bracelets made of 12 to 16 beads for between £70 and £90. Inside one small shop were hundreds of pieces of skin.

The investigators crossed the border into China and visited an area known as ‘elephant valley’, where tourists can see elephants in a nature reserve and pay to attend circus-style shows. There, elephant skin and polished beads made into bracelets and necklaces are sold to and openly worn by visitors.

The Asian elephant population has decreased by at least 50 per cent over the past 40 years and there are now believed to be only 2,000 in the wild in Burma, although the government owns several thousand more animals that were used in the country’s forestry industry.

Elephant Family’s chief executive, Ruth Powys, believes that the dramatic recent increase in poaching of Asian elephants for skin is a ‘canary in a coal mine’ – an early-warning sign of an escalating trade that may soon spiral out of control.

Elephant Family funds anti-poaching patrols in Burma’s forests. Its investigation coincides with this week’s meeting of CITES, the convention on the trade in endangered species, in Johannesburg.

Ms Powys added: ‘If we can raise sufficient funds to conduct further investigations to establish the full extent of this abhorrent trade, if we can work with governments to widen anti-poaching patrols, curb growing demand fuelled by traders and stall the emerging consumer market, we may still be in time to stop this trade and prevent the extinction of the Asian elephant.’

More information on the investigation can be found here.