Poaching elephants for their ivory has already devastated populations, but poaching the animals for their skin could be disastrous, according to a new study detailing the "heartbreaking" practice in Myanmar. Poaching wasn't thought to be a major issue in the country at the outset of the three-year study, when 19 wild elephants were fitted with GPS collars, because tusks only appear in 25% to 30% of male Asian elephants. But almost accidentally, researchers uncovered an organized poaching operation. "We started to see a lot of the elephants dropping off the map in a pretty alarming way," John McEvoy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute tells Smithsonian. All 19 elephants disappeared or turned up dead in a 13.5-square-mile area in less than two years. Another 40 elephants were found dead in areas of south-central Myanmar, their skin and trunks removed.
Researchers then learned poachers were paying thousands of dollars to learn an elephant's location and killing the animals specifically for their skin. In neighboring China, where it's used in traditional medicine, elephant skin sells for as much as $350 per pound, National Geographic previously reported. Though the extent of the problem isn't fully known, researchers say this method of poaching could spell disaster for Asian elephants already suffering from habitat loss. All elephants are targeted, rather than only tusked elephants, and "hunting females and calves is a really quick way to drive a species towards extinction," McEvoy says. "This is especially worrisome for Myanmar where the wild elephant population collapsed from an estimated 10,000 individuals in the 1940s, to an estimated 1,430-2,065 today," the study in PLOS notes. (Authorities tested human feces in hopes of identifying a poacher.)