Horrifying new trend sees elephants slaughtered for their skin

Last week Michael Gove announced plans to ban all ivory sales in the UK

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WARNING - GRAPHIC IMAGES

New elephant poaching involves jewellery being made from their skin

Lying slaughtered in a forest ­clearing, its skin half-peeled, the elephant is one of 20 found dead the same day, many of them mothers and calves, all killed by poisoned dart.

But these animals were not butchered for their precious ivory tusks; they were killed for their thick, grey hide. It is hacked off while their bodies are still warm. The rest of the beast is left to rot.

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Just last week Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to ban all ivory sales in the UK, in an attempt to help save elephants across the globe.

But the Mirror has learned that record numbers of Asian elephants face a terrifying new poaching epidemic – for a sick trend of jewellery made from their skin.

Monica Wrobel, head of conservation at wildlife charity Elephant Family, said: "These elephants were killed to order. The herd were tracked, slaughtered, and every bit of skin taken."

Credits: HANDOUT FROM WWF

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The skin is polished and made into blood-red beads, which are sold as bracelets and necklaces at up to £75 each. Traders claim they can ward off illness.

Demand for the illegal jewellery is already so high in China that dealers are demanding more elephant skin from smugglers.

Last year, rangers found more than 60 elephants butchered for skin in Myan­mar, formerly Burma – now the epicentre of this poaching epidemic.

This year has been worse. Investigators seized 66 trunks in a single haul. Two herds were slaughtered, with a further six skinned elephants found in six weeks in the summer.

And if demand for beads ­continues to grow at this rate, these already endangered ­animals could be poached to the brink of extinction within two years.

The skin is polished and made into blood-red beads, which are sold as bracelets and necklaces at up to £75 each

The skin is polished and made into blood-red beads, which are sold as bracelets and necklaces at up to £75 each

Christy Williams, WWF's Myanmar director, said: "This is the last chance for Myanmar's elephants. Poaching and skinning is at unprecedented levels. If it continues, it could lead to the extinction of wild elephants here."

Just 20 years ago the country's forests were seen as a safe haven for Asian elephants, but the rise in poaching in its largely lawless countryside has decimated the 10,000-strong population. Attempts to protect the animals could be further undermined by the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. More than 400,000 Rohingya have fled an alleged campaign of military violence.

Meanwhile, experts fear fewer than 1,400 wild elephants remain there. Days ago, Mr Gove announced a consultation on banning the sale of all ivory in the UK, increasing laws which had excluded antique ivory dating from before 1947. It was hoped this would help elephant numbers, but experts say the spike in demand for skin could see them disappear from much of Myanmar by 2019.

Tuskless mothers and calves were previously immune to ivory poaching but are now targets, preventing the species from reproducing and replenishing itself.

Credits: Getty Images Europe

Last week Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to ban all ivory sales in the UK, in an attempt to help save elephants across the globe

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And with poachers using poisoned darts to protect the skin, the animals face a cruel death. Mr Williams said: "It can take up to three days for an elephant to die. They wander in terrible pain.

"As someone who has seen many elephant deaths, even I am shocked by the brutality of these skin poachers."

In the past, Chinese medicine used elephant skin to ease stomach pains and in a paste for arthritic joints and diseased skin. But until now, medics generally used skin from animals that villagers had encountered by chance and killed to eat.

That changed in 2014, when elephant beads were first spotted in markets either side of Myanmar's border with China. It coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of butchered carcasses found, with only the animals' skin taken.

Ms Wrobel said: "It seems the beads are jewellery, but these traders start by asking what your ailment is. Then they will say, 'Well, these beads are perfect for that'. They're deliberately trying to create a new market for poached animals.

"It could be disastrous. With China banning ivory, more traders are going to think, 'Why don't we sell skin instead?' We need to stop this before demand for beads really takes hold." Charities are working with the Myanmar government to deploy anti-poaching teams, fit tracking collars to elephants and crack down on illegal wildlife markets.

Credits: Xinhua News Agency / eyevine

In the past, Chinese medicine used elephant skin to ease stomach pains and in a paste for arthritic joints and diseased skin

Last year, Elephant Family enlisted British detectives to probe the trade. They found it was growing rapidly. Most skin is trafficked through Mong La, a border town where Myanmar's government has no control. It is a notorious hub for the illegal wildlife trade and child prostitution.

Ex-policeman John, whose name has been changed to protect his undercover work, said: "One trader told us he delivered 30kg of elephant skin to a customer for the first time and he sold it all. He ordered more straight away. Several traders said the same thing.

"That rang alarm bells. If they can see there is a growing market, they're going to push it more."

Over the border, smugglers head to Xishuangbanna, in South West China. Investigators did not find much skin, a sign that most was being shipped further into the country, where it can fetch £90 per kilo – seven times the price in Myanmar.

But they found numerous traders looking for ways to refine the elephant skin to make it less likely to deteriorate when wet. The team also found bracelets being sold widely on Chinese websites. There is a risk they will become a status symbol for China's rapidly growing middle class – and criminal gangs will muscle in.

With a population of 1.4 billion people, a Chinese obsession could kill off the world's ­elephants within decades.

If demand increases, African elephants could be next. Vietnam and Thailand have ­previously been exposed as hubs for ­traffickers moving endangered animal products out of Africa.

John said: "We have to target the demand for elephant skin. If we fail, the consequences will be catastrophic."

Huge threat to gentle giants

  • In 1997 there were some 10,000 Asian elephants in Myanmar. It is feared there are now just 1,400 and the skin trade boom could kill them off in two years.
  • There are about 30,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left, down from about 100,000 in 1900. They are endangered.
  • Some 350,000 African elephants, left, remain in the wild – a 97% decline from the estimated
    12 million in 1900.
  • The ivory trade was banned in 1990, yet this and antique ivory has still been booming.
  • Last year's Great Elephant Census found 144,000 African elephants killed for ivory in the past decade. The animals are also slain for meat and body parts.

Pictures of baby elephants

Pictures of baby elephants


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