The commodification of elephants continues to plague the species both in Africa and Asia, this time with a different twist. Not only do the world’s elephants already face enormous threats to their survival from captivity, the ivory trade, habitat loss, conflict with humans and trophy hunting, an increasing number are being killed for their skins.
With populations continuing to dwindle, Friends of Animals(FoA) is moving to strengthen pachyderm protections and is petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to amend the Endangered Species Act to include greater restrictions on trade of elephant skins and other body parts.
Poachers are killing Asian elephants, which are listed as endangered, and selling their skins to make powdered supplements and jewelry that are illegally sold on the internet and in Asian markets in China, Laos and Myanmar, according to a 2018 investigation by Elephant Family.
In the U.S., African elephant skin products, other than ivory, can be imported without a permit. The skin and other body parts of trophy-hunted African elephants (which have been listed as a threatened species) can be imported each year by hunters from a greater number of countries under loosened restrictions by the Trump administration. In fact, applications for elephant trophy permits increased in 2017, FoA has found. African elephant skin is legally exported from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to the U.S. and Japan for clothing and leather products.
From 2007-2016, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) data, Zimbabwe and South Africa exported the whole hides of 38,858 elephants.
The U.S. is a major importer of elephant parts and products, exceeding other countries. In 2016, the U.S. imported 2,079 whole African elephant skins, up from 275 just two years ago.
Sanctioned African elephant hides—skins that were taken under conditions laid out by the CITES— are legally being used to make handbags, boots, totes, belts, computer cases, gun holders and even sneakers that are coveted fashion items. (Singer Jay-Z has posted pictures of his $2,500 elephant skin sneakers on his blog.)
In China, the government is initiating a pilot program for elephant skin pharmaceuticals made from African elephants. While the skins of African and Asian elephants are a hot commodity, the population of elephants—once in the millions—has declined by 90 percent in the past century. Just 350,000 remain in Africa and less than 50,000 in Asia, according to the Great Elephant Census.
The rise in the skin trade comes at a time when an increasing number of countries around the world are closing their ivory markets. China banned ivory at the start of 2018. The U.K. announced in April it would ban sales of ivory and Hong Kong said it would end sales in 2021. (The Obama administration implemented a ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory in 2016. The ban prohibits the importation of most ivory into the U.S. and ivory sales across state lines but doesn’t apply to ivory sales within state borders. It also includes exemptions, such as antiques that are more than 100 years old and items with small amounts of ivory. It still allows for import of sporthunted elephant trophies to two per hunter per year.)
The investigation by Elephant Family, a nonprofit based in the U.K. and U.S., found that poachers are killing elephants of any age for skins.
“Most of our regulations surrounding elephants are focused on ivory. But now there is a growing demand for elephant skin that could also be driving their extinction,’’ said Jennifer Best, Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program Assistant Director. “If you want to protect elephants you need to protect all parts of the elephants.”
In 2010, four elephants killed for their skins were found in Myanmar. By 2016, 61 elephants were killed for their skins.
The skins and products made from them, such as beads, are openly sold in Myanmar as well as Guangdong and Fujian provinces in China, the Elephant Family report found.
Asian elephant skins were selling for more than $100 per kg and a skin powder for $425.
Elephant Family also tracked sales on the internet and found active sales of skin beads and powder through open online forums such as Baidu and private platforms such as WeChat.
“There is little doubt that the 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.
FoA in its petition said the trade in skins is contributing to the decimation of the species:
“The United States and the Fish and Wildlife Services commitment to protect African elephants by destroying the market for ivory is commendable. However, by continuing to allow trade in skins and other elephant parts, the message is less impactful, as the U.S. is still supporting the trade and killing of elephants for fashion accessories and status symbols (boots, wallets, belts, etc.). This contradictory stance undermines conservation efforts because of the broader impact on public perception. People can rightly ask why it’s so important to protect elephants when it is legal to get shoes made from them.”
FoA President Priscilla Feral noted how important it is for the public to understand the challenges facing elephants.
“Among elephants in their homelands, matriarchs remain leaders as long as they survive. With age comes wisdom, the adage goes, and older matriarchal elephants never appear to lose their cognitive abilities,’’ she said. “There’s so much to admire about elephants. In contrast, President Trump’s hazardous practices and policies have put elephant survival in peril. FoA is committed to assuring a future for these powerful, adaptable land mammals so that commercial threats forever end.”
SECURING THEIR FUTURE
• Several advocacy organizations have petitioned FWS to change the status of African elephants from threatened to endangered to stop all imports of body parts. But FWS has not acted on the requests, and instead has loosened protections.
• FoA’s petition calls on FWS to restrict the import and trade in all elephant parts, including skins and hides.
• FoA is also working to enact legislation in New York and CT that would prohibit imports of any trophy-hunted elephants and other African species. We are also supporting federal legislation proposed by U.S. Reps. Ted Lieu, (D- California) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that will amend the Endangered Species Act to prohibit the killing of any endangered species or threatened species of wildlife or fish in the U.S for a trophy and the importation of any such trophy into the U.S.