For hundreds of years, the biggest threat elephants was the ivory trade. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Africa lost more than 100,000 elephants between 2006 and 2015, the worst poaching surge since the 1980s.
In 1989, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory by placing the species on Appendix I, meaning that all products derived from these elephants is prohibited except for non-commercial purposes.
Once this ban went into effect in 1990, elephant populations in the wild stabilized somewhat. But the researchers emphasized that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem.
Despite the ban, demand in Southeast Asia and especially China has overwhelmed the capacity of local and global authorities to curb the carnage. China’s State Forestry Administration is issuing licenses for the manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products containing elephant skin.
At the start of 2018, China banned all ivory products within its borders. As one of the largest markets for ivory, this represented a significant win for conservationists. However, just as the ivory trade declined, a new demand for elephant skin emerged.
A 2018 report from Elephant Family, a U.K.-based non-profit, found that the main market for elephant skin was located in China, where it is primarily used for two purposes: It’s ground down into a powder for use in traditional medicinal products, and it’s shaped in polished beads for bracelets and necklaces.
Belinda Stewart-Cox, the director of conservation at the non-profit Elephant Conservation Network, explains: “If you look at the beads, you think they look like garnets, rubies or some kind of red stone. But those subcutaneous layers in the skin include a lot of blood vessels, so there’s a lot of blood in that. Those beads look ruby red because they contain blood.”
In many ways, this trade is even more destructive than the ivory trade. First, it primarily targets Asian elephants, which were already more at risk than African elephants (today, there are only about 50,000 wild Asian elephants left). Unlike poaching for ivory, the skin trade does not discriminate between genders and ages in elephants, making them far more vulnerable.
Aside from the innate tragedy of losing one of Earth’s largest land mammals, it would be an ecological disaster if the Asian elephants were to go extinct.
Asian elephants are sometimes referred to as the “gardeners of the forest,” as they eat plants that would otherwise grow wild, they create paths through the forest for other animals to move through and for new plant life to grow in, and they distribute seeds through their dung, which also has the added benefit of fertilizing the soil and providing homes and nutrients for a variety of insect species.
Unfortunately, it is not easy for elephants to recover from a major blow to their population. As a large species, elephants do not have many offspring, and the gestational period for one elephant is around 22 months. And while ivory poaching mainly targeted the males, now female elephants are also viable targets for poachers, further hampering these animals’ ability to bounce back.
A number of non-profit are working to raise awareness of this issue and to bring it to the attention of international bodies, such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Elephant Family presented its 2018 report to CITES, gaining approval from the European Union and the U.S. for amendments, such as requiring investigations into illegal trade and implementation reporting. The World Wildlife Fund is equipping and training rangers to stop poaching in Myanmar, where this crisis is particularly dire. With any luck and with greater public awareness and engagement, we can drive poaching, rather than elephants, to extinction.