The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Service refusal to take action to protect elephants from a skin trade that has depleted the population of pachyderms is jeopardizing their chances to survive as a species, Friends of Animals stated in a recent lawsuit filed by its Wildlife Law Program in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.

The elephant population in Africa has been so depleted they have been listed as threatened. And while a ban on ivory was aimed at helping to sustain the species, commercial trade has moved to elephant skins.

From 2007 to 2016, skins from more than 70,000 African elephants were traded and the number of whole elephant skins imported to the U.S. jumped from 275 in 2014 to 2,079 in 2016.

In 2018, Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program filed a petition to FWS asking it to amend the existing regulations and prohibit the import and export of African elephant parts and products (other than ivory.) But FWS never acted on the petition.

Where once there were 12 million elephants in Africa in the early 1900s, there are now less than 400,000, as their body parts have been commodified for skin products and trophy hunts.

“The current regulations conflict with FWS’s goal of protecting African elephants. While the regulations recognize the threat to African elephants from illegal poaching for their tusks, the regulations ignore the growing threat to African elephants from illegal poaching for their skins,” FoA said in its lawsuit.

The value of elephant parts and products has jumped from $24,947 to more than $4.5 million in 2017 fueling the poaching and commerce industry.

Sanctioned African elephant hides—skins that were taken under conditions laid out by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)— are legally being used to make handbags, boots, totes, belts, computer cases, gun holders and even sneakers that are coveted fashion items.

Even though Asian elephants are listed as endangered and there is no legal commercial trade, the skins and products made from them, such as beads, are openly sold in Myanmar as well as Guangdong and Fujian provinces in China, according to an Elephant Family report. Asian elephant skins from poachers were selling for more than $100 per kg and a skin powder for $425, the report found.

“There is little doubt that the (illegal) skin trade is a major and developing threat to Asian elephants across their range. Traffickers are developing new ways to market elephant skin products and are selling them to apparently willing consumers,” Elephant Family noted in its report. “This crisis poses a greater threat to Asian elephants than the ivory trade. Moreover, this new trend could easily spread to Africa as has been seen with other species. As one trader told Elephant Family investigators ‘it’s only skin—who cares if it comes from Asian elephants or African elephants.’”

In the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife maintains that the skin trade doesn’t pose a threat to the viability of the elephant species. Only three states prohibit the import and sale of elephant skins—New York, New Jersey and California. Nationwide, elephant skin products can easily be found on the internet. Roje Exotics, which boasts five dedicated warehouses and several finishing tanneries in the U.S, sells African elephant products, including men’s elephant skin messenger bags for $5,000 and panels of different colored elephant skins for $45.The Leather Guy sells tanned African elephant hide for prices ranging from $78 to $202 and American Exotics supplies elephant and other exotic hides to the fashion, upholstery and design industries.

“When FWS listed the African elephant as threatened, it issued a special rule to provide for their conservation,’’ FoA said in the lawsuit. “It is inconsistent for the Special Rule to severely restrict trade in ivory from African elephants, yet largely allow the trade in other parts and products.”