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  • Writer's picturejohnfmcevoy

New Publication: An Emerging Poaching Crisis for Asian Elephants (warning: some disturbing images)

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Myanmar sits at an important junction between India, China, Thailand and Laos and has a unique mix of species and ecosytems

Asian elephants live in the most densely human-populated areas on earth. Yet, in comparison to their more populous African cousins, we know little about how they move through these landscapes and how they survive in such rapidly changing ecosystems. Recent studies demonstrate that Asian elephants, though very adaptable, are affected by habitat loss as well as road development.

Our Asian elephant research program at SCBI has been running for decades and had originally focused on the movement ecology of elephants and on human-elephant conflict caused by crop raiding and land clearing. As the study progressed we became aware a poaching crisis when we fitted 19 Asian elephants with satellite GPS collars. Seven of those 19 elephants were poached within a year of being fitted with the collars. Observations and discoveries from our partners on the ground in Myanmar found further evidence of large-scale poaching. In less than two years, they confirmed that at least 19 elephants, including the seven with satellite GPS collars, were poached. And systematic surveys showed an additional 40 poached elephants were found across the southern central region of the country.

In recent years there has been a lot of research

and media focus on the

Left: A map showing recent elephant poaching locations in Myanmar. Right: One of the elephants that we had been tracking with a GPS collar was found poached after a mortality alert warned us of something unusual going on

poaching of African elephants for the ivory trade but very little is known about the trade in elephant skin. Our research and that of international NGOs like WWF, WCS and FFI have shown that the trade in elephant skin and meat has boomed in Asia in recent years. While the ivory trade has historically been a major threatening process for Asian elephants, only males carry sizable tusks and even then as few as 25% may have them. With the increase in the market for skin for dubious medicinal purposes, jewelry and furniture poachers are now targeting males, females and juveniles. While losing a number of adult males from a population of elephants is definitely not good, now that the poachers are target breeding females and young this could be potentially disastrous for the remaining populations of Asian elephants.

An Asian Elephant that has been poached and butchered for its skin. The skin is sold as traditional medicine in Myanmar and China.

This Asian elephant research emerges from a long running and multifaceted collaboration with local partners in Myanmar (including local NGOs and government agencies) as well as international NGOs, all of us working together to safe guard the Asian elephant into the future. Our findings suggest that human-elephant conflict, which was thought to be the biggest threat to Myanmar’s wild elephants, may be secondary to poaching. We hope to draw some much needed attention to this under-represented poaching crisis and to galvanize governments and NGOs in their conservation efforts and help end the slaughter of these amazing animals. We published our results in PLOS One and you can read the full paper here.

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