The smell was ghastly and the sight even worse. Twenty-five elephants lay dead in a riverbed in the Ayeyawady (Irrawaddy) delta in southwestern Myanmar. “The stench is what led villagers to the bodies in the first place,” says Aung Myo Chit, the Smithsonian Institution’s Myanmar country coordinator, who also leads a local NGO, Growth for Prosperity, that helps rural residents avoid deadly conflicts with elephants.
It was the trust Aung Myo Chit’s outreach workers had earned that led
villagers of Nga Pu Taw Township to reveal the dead elephants.
Ordinarily, local people avoid reporting poaching to the authorities for
fear they’ll be blamed.
By the time Aung Myo Chit’s filmmaker colleague Klaus Reisinger got
there in early May, the giant carcasses had deteriorated badly. “Their
bellies were bloated,” Reisinger recalls with a shudder.
Captive elephants are often used to drag carcasses of elephants slain
for their ivory out of riverbeds where they’re commonly found. But that
wasn’t possible this time. The skin had been stripped from the bodies,
leaving them to tear apart if moved. So staff with the Myanmar Forest
Department who came to investigate burned them in place to prevent their
contaminating the downstream water supply.
Such spectacles are familiar on African savannas, where elephants are more numerous and poachers have stalked their ivory for decades. Not so in the thick forests of Myanmar, where the
country’s remaining 1,200 to 1,400 endangered wild elephants are elusive
and only the males (and not all males) have tusks.
But this and other, smaller recent slaughters in the Ayeyawady delta
were not ivory raids. Poachers had killed males, tuskless females, and
calves alike in pursuit of a different prize: their skins.
Using elephant skin and other body parts is nothing new in Southeast
Asia. In Myanmar and elsewhere—particularly in tribal areas—the skin is
dried, ground, mixed with oils, and applied to treat eczema and other
“But there’s a lot we don’t know,” says Martin Tyson, a Wildlife
Conservation Society biologist who’s helping Myanmar’s government draft
an elephant conservation plan. “Recently Chinese biologists said it’s
used for upset stomachs.”
According to Aung Myo Chit, something seems to have surprised the
poachers who killed the 25 elephants earlier this year. They “left
behind the skins which they’d put up to dry over bone fires.
up the skin like laundry. Some bags were confiscated with raw hides
still rolled up on pieces of wood and severed elephant trunks.”
“Rolled up like toilet paper,” Reisinger adds. “People tell me they can
skin an elephant in four or five minutes.” Because of heavy penalties
for gun ownership, the high-powered rifles used by poachers in Africa
are rare in Myanmar. Instead, poachers often use darts and metal and
bamboo spears dipped in readily available pesticides; the elephants die
slow, painful deaths.
Professional poachers “go into an area and find local guides,” Tyson
says. “The guides often get arrested, and the poachers get away. But the
amount guides can earn is probably months’ worth of what they could
gain by any other activity.”
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