Myanmar elephants losing lives to skin cure fad

MOUNT KYAIKHTEEYOE • Under the shadow of Myanmar's famed holy site "Golden Rock", punters haggle for the latest traditional medicine cure - slices of skin from the country's fast-disappearing wild elephants .

The shops here openly sell everything from pieces of ivory and tiger's teeth to vials of bear oil.

But elephant skin is the latest fad luring devotees of traditional medicine.

"Elephant's skin can cure skin diseases like eczema," one shop owner, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

"You burn pieces of skin by putting them in a clay pot. Then you get the ash and mix it with coconut oil to apply on the eczema." He breaks off to talk to a potential buyer, who baulks at the price tag of 775 kyat (81 Singapore cents) per sq cm of elephant skin.

Dried elephant skin and an ivory tusk for sale at a traditional medicine shop at the Golden Rock pagoda.
Dried elephant skin and an ivory tusk for sale at a traditional medicine shop at the Golden Rock pagoda. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A young man touting his wares nearby promised a paste made from ground-up elephant teeth would "cure pimples and remove black spots".

Elephant poaching in Myanmar has jumped tenfold in recent years, the government said last week, driven by growing demand for ivory, hide and body parts.

Increasingly, carcasses are being found stripped of their skin, the hide used for traditional medicine or reportedly turned into beads for jewellery.

Some of it is sold in local markets, but the vast majority goes to feed neighbouring China's inexhaustible taste for exotic animals.

Myanmar's wild elephant population is thought to have almost halved over the past decade to around 2,000 to 3,000.

"We're in the middle of a crisis," said Mr Antony Lynam, regional adviser at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"If we're losing this number it can't be too many more years before wild elephants are gone," he said.

Elephants are one of dozens of endangered species being trafficked through Myanmar, which has become a key hub in the US$20 billion (S$28.5 billion) a year global wildlife trade.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Myanmar elephants losing lives to skin cure fad'. Print Edition | Subscribe