Asian elephants have long been hunted for their tusks around Southeast Asia. Now in some areas of Myanmar (formerly Burma) they are also being hunted in record numbers for their skins. The reason: many people have come to believe that elephant skin has medicinal properties and can be used to treat ailments like eczema and because it can be turned into jewelry.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, at least two dozen wild elephants were killed and stripped of their skins last year by poachers in two areas within the south of Myanmar. The incidents took place in the Pegu Range and the Irrawaddy Delta, where wild elephants still roam but where a long-simmering civil war with ethnic minorities and a lack of law enforcement facilitate growing impunity among poachers. That number of murdered jumbos was more than the total number of wild elephants killed on average in an entire year around the country.
Despite an effort by conservationist groups to protect the country’s dwindling population of wild elephants, the poaching of pachyderms carries on unabated. Even some of the animals that have been collared by wildlife experts so their movements could be monitored have been killed by poachers.
Local poachers don’t even have to use sophisticated technology to hunt down wild elephants. All they need are bows and arrows. They frequently resort to poisoned arrows to kill the pachyderms by shooting the animals and then following them until they succumb to the effects of the poison, dying a slow and painful death. To make matters worse, they are especially targeting mothers and their calves because they are easier to kill than mature bulls.
“Many gangs are coming from central Myanmar. Some include people from the ethnic Chin minority; they are good hunters,” Saw Htoo Tha Po, a senior technical coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, explains. “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.”
Unless these local hunters are stopped, Myanmar’s wild elephants are facing dire prospects. Several iconic species like Indochinese tigers are already on their last legs in the country and Asian elephants might soon be on the verge of going extinct too. “Asian elephants are already facing tremendous challenges across their range,” said Nilanga Jayasinghe, WWF’s senior program officer for Asian species. “Adding to those is this new trend that we are seeing in Myanmar of herds being indiscriminately poached for their skin. It is extremely alarming.”