The illegal trade in elephant skins for decorative beads and medicinal powders has spread rapidly since the commercial trade was first described by researchers last year.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE WINTER, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
BY DINA FINE MARON
It was the smell that put off the men and women charged with converting the subcutaneous fat from freshly slaughtered elephants into ruby red beads. It was noxious. Acrid. The fumes were stomach-churning as the workers in China spent hours curing then polishing translucent beads of fat that often didn’t retain their shape.
One trader told investigators with Elephant Family, a conservation watchdog based in London, England, that it took him an entire day to produce one bead.
There was also another problem: The fat beads weren’t very durable. When they came into contact with human skin—around the neck or wrist—they would sweat.
Even so, a report out today from Elephant Family finds that the trade in elephant skins—for medicinal powders and pills and for jewelry—has mushroomed since 2018. That’s when Elephant Family and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—the Smithsonian’s global conservation research arm—first described the commercial elephant skin trade in two separate reports. They noted that elephants were being killed and skinned in Myanmar and that the skins were sold in marketplaces and on social media platforms in China.
But now, according to the new Elephant Family report, the burgeoning industry seems to have spread from Myanmar throughout a larger swath of Southeast Asia, including not only China but also Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The beads are sold in Myanmar and China, and skin products for traditional cures in all five countries.
Elephant Family’s previous report, published in April 2018, revealed that one person appeared to be behind the bead trade, at least initially. That trader, whom they called “Jaz,” posted about beads in an online discussion board in 2014; it “generated 23 follow-up responses indicating that the trade in elephant skin beads was novel and little-known,” according to the report. The elephant beads are made in the style of traditional Chinese collectibles, known as wenwan. Exactly who wants them remains unknown.