CLEMSON, South Carolina – Elephants in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar are facing a new, brutal brand of destruction at the hands of poachers: They’re being slaughtered at an increasing rate for their skins, feet, genitalia and hair, according to a report published March 13, 2018, in PLOS ONE.

Historically, poachers mostly hunted elephants for their ivory tusks. In Asian elephants, only males grow tusks, meaning female and juvenile elephants were at less risk of being poached.

“This newly emerging illegal market for other body parts puts all Asian elephants at risk,” said Christie Sampson, a biological sciences doctoral student at Clemson University, a fellow of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and lead author of the report. The Smithsonian Institution helped fund Sampson’s work.

Considering Asian elephants’ low reproductive rate and long gestation period, “the targeting of critical female breeders may have devastating consequences for the survival of Asian elephant populations,” said co-author Peter Leimgruber, the scientist leading the Smithsonian’s elephant conservation efforts in Myanmar.

The new threats add to the demise of an already endangered species; the Asian elephant population has collapsed nearly 80 percent in the past 70 years, from about 10,000 in the 1940s to around 1,500 to 2,000 today.

The Smithsonian’s original project was studying human-elephant conflicts in the Bago Yoma region of Myanmar. Between 2014 and 2017, the  team fitted 19 elephants with tracking collars. By 2017, five of the elephants were found dead; two others disappeared and were never found. Another 11 uncollared elephants were also killed by poachers. In March 2017, community outreach groups in a nearby region found 20 elephants at one kill site.

The losses, Sampson states, “indicate a critical threat to the survival of the elephant population in Myanmar.”

An elephant lies dead on a trail.

An elephant in Myanmar that was being followed for a study about elephant-human conflict was killed by poachers. The increase in poaching signals a new crisis to the endangered species.
Image Credit: Christie Sampson/Clemson University

Poachers appear to be “experienced and well-coordinated,” due to “the butchering skills necessary to skin an elephant,” as well as the requirements for transporting and storing elephants, said Smithsonian scientist John McEvoy, who returned from Myanmar in February from the most recent elephant capture and collaring expedition. Poachers commonly use poison darts, which slowly kill elephants over the course of several days.

Poachers move elephant meat and skin into towns across the Myanmar-China border, and the trade appears to be spreading into northern India and Thailand, McEvoy said, but “the markets for non-ivory products are poorly understood.”

Myanmar villagers say elephant trunks and genitals are used for meat. Elephant skin and feet are ground into powder and used by people as medicine for stomach ailments, or it’s mixed with elephant fat and spread on skin infections. Elephant skin is also used to make jewelry, and feet are used as furniture like foot stools or umbrella stands, Sampson said.

A map of Myanmar showing three regions of the country where poached elephants were found dead.

Areas where poached elephants were found dead. 1. Ayeryarwady Delta, 2. southern Bago Yoma mountain range and 3. southern Tanintharyi region.

As the human population in Southeast Asia grows, elephant habitats get smaller, leading to more encounters between the animals. Sampson notes the construction of a large reservoir that destroyed elephant habitat and drove animals away. People moved into the area around the reservoir and elephants returned for the ample water supply, increasing human-elephant conflict, Sampson’s original research focus. Several people each year die in human-elephant conflicts, which increases scorn for the animals and reportedly makes villagers more willing to assist poachers.

Despite the increased threats from poaching, Sampson said she’s optimistic about future elephant conservation efforts.

“We are seeing a lot of positive signs in the community,” she said. At the beginning of the Smithsonian’s original project, Sampson and her team surveyed local residents about whether they want elephants to remain in their areas.

“The answer was a resounding ‘yes,’” she said.

The PLOS ONE report comes nearly two weeks after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a change in policy on the larger African elephant, from a ban on the import of body parts to approval on a case-by-case basis.

Sampson’s project was funded by the Smithsonian Institution, Friends of the National News, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.