Elephant Skin Auctions in Zimbabwe Are Booming—And Legal

The surging trade in elephant hides is stirring controversy amid the poaching crisis.

Some 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory each year, so it shocks some people to learn that elephant skin leather can be exported and sold around the world legally.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BEVERLY JOUBERT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

“If you are looking for the toughest of leathers and the sturdiest of boots, elephant is the hide for you, as nothing compares to the strength of a custom elephant cowboy boot.”

So reads the website of the Paul Bond Boot Company, one of the firms that turn the gnarly-patterned hide of Earth’s largest land animals into boots, wallets, belts, suitcases, jackets, golf bags, pool cues, furniture, car and motorcycle seats, gun holsters, and whatever else well-heeled customers may fancy. Better yet, adds Paul Bond, “the tanning options are second to none, with several different textures and colors available.”

“It’s the most puncture-proof leather,” says Jerry Van Amburg, an affable Idaho-based leatherworker who sometimes uses elephant hide. “People who work with venomous snakes like it for their boot tops.” The softer ears are reserved for uses where suppleness and smoother grain are preferred.

 

Elephant hides, like these Zimbabwe being stored for auction, are used to make boots, wallets, luxury car upholstery, and other products.

PHOTOGRAPH BY REUTERS

People who don’t buy exotic leathers but know about the dire threat ivory poaching poses to Africa’s elephants are sometimes shocked to learn that their hides are routinely and openly offered as part of a legally traded menagerie that includes alligator, cayman, lizard, python, anaconda, shark, stingray, ostrich, kangaroo, and warthog.

Outside New Jersey, New York, and California, which have banned it, properly certified African elephant hide is a product that in the view of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some leading conservation organizations represents no threat to its embattled source. Others, fearing that elephant skin may begin to replace ivory as a motive for poaching, have urged the United States to ban its importation.

The current legal trade in elephant hide dates back to 1997, when the southern African nations of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia persuaded the U.N.-sponsored Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to reclassify their relatively well-protected elephants from Appendix I status (which allows no commercial export and applies to Asian and other African elephants) to Appendix II. South Africa gained a similar adjustment in 2000.

Initially CITES allowed these four countries to commercially export only hides, but in 2007 it permitted commercial exports of finished leatherwork as well from South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Meanwhile visitors to Zimbabwe can take home elephant leather goods they buy there.

This is a boon for an elite fraternity of craftsmen and luxury-goods vendors, whose clients range from music, sports, and movie stars to Gulf sheikhs and ordinary dudes for whom boots are matters of faith, not just fashion. The sheikhs favor elephant skin “to decorate their Mercedes-Benzes,” says Nanette Wheeler Carter, president of the San Francisco-based NGO Connection Africa, which tracks wild hide sales around the world and which lobbied to pass California’s ban on sales of elephant parts.

 

In 2016 the U.S. imported more than 2,000 whole elephant skins, mostly from Zimbabwe and South Africa, up from 275 in 2014. The skins come from culled or diseased elephants.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOBBY MODEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

In 2012 the rapper Jay-Z injected glamour and boosted his own notoriety when he flaunted a bespoke pair of $2,500 Brooklyn Zoo Jordan 1 sneakers made from the hides of elephants and nine other species by PMK Customs (Perfectly Made Kicks, formerly Pimp My Kicks)—topping his wife Beyoncé’s own high tops made from just five species.

At $45 a square foot, finished elephant hide doesn’t come cheap, unless you compare it to Nile crocodile skins at $800 or more apiece. But perceived scarcity and mythic majesty are part of the appeal. “I think half the clients buy it just because it’s from elephants,” Van Amburg says.

Nevertheless, he adds, elephant hide is only a “minor specialty product” for him, as it is for many other exotic leather vendors. Florida-based hide dealer and importer Henry Slaughter calls it “a sideline” to his mainstay alligator and ostrich lines.

A ROARING TRADE

After a recent lag, U.S. elephant skin imports from Zimbabwe and South Africa came roaring back in 2016—from 275 whole skins in 2014 to 2,079 in 2016, plus thousands of smaller skin pieces and finished leather goods from various countries.

Worldwide, hide exports have held steady or grown during the past decade, far surpassing those in preceding years. In 2007-2016, according to CITES data (which are recorded inconsistently), Zimbabwe and South Africa together exported the whole hides of 38,858 elephants plus another 609,000 square feet and 21,504 pounds of skins and leatherwork. At an average 20 square feet per processed hide, these would represent more than 30,000 elephants.

This does not include thousands more pieces and goods that were merely counted, not measured, plus smaller quantities from other countries and any illicit exports. Unless there is considerable overlap in the CITES data, at least 70,000 African elephants appear to have given their hides to the legal global skin trade during the past decade—about twice the number poached for ivory each year.

The American vendors nevertheless believe fervently that skin sales not only do not threaten elephants but actually help protect and preserve them. “The funds go to support conservation,” says Slaughter.

It’s not quite correct to say, as the website of leather dealer Rojé Exoticsdoes, that “hunting reserves are the source of all legally traded African elephant skins,” making the harvest “very similar to our deer season in the United States.”

Tenashe Farawo, the chief spokesman for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks), the leading hide supplier, says the largest source is actually “elephants we have had to put down because of conflicts with humans.” This has been described by critics and officials alike as “culling” to control elephant overpopulation, but Farawo disputes the term: “We last did culling in the 1980s,” he says, adding that the second source is natural mortality.

“Some people get upset about elephants,” says Tracy Brubaker, owner of the Minnesota-based vendor The Leather Guy. “Some people get upset about rabbits. Most people who understand the need to keep a herd healthy understand that there needs to be some hunting.” Customers “should not feel emotional or have guilt for using this leather as we are not creating a demand rather using a by product [sic],” Rojé’s website declares.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates wild animal imports, and a leading conservation organization, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), essentially concur. “The problems with African elephants do not center around the legal skin/leather trade,” WWF’s wildlife practice policy manager, Colman O’Criodain, said in an email. “The problem lies with unsustainable demand—principally in China—for ivory.”

In 2016 the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a petition from the Humane Society (U.S. and International), the Fund for Animals, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to grant African elephants “endangered” status and ban the import and sale of all their parts, including skin. “There is no information to indicate that commercial use of elephant parts and products other than ivory has had any effect on the rates or patterns of illegal killing of elephants,” the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded.

The Humane Society and its co-petitioners contended that such a stance is dangerous and shortsighted. “The Service ignores the broader negative impact that commercialization of wildlife parts has on public perception of the need to conserve imperiled species,” they argued. Why, in other words, should people believe elephants are in peril when you can legally upholster your car with their hides?

And, as the Humane Society says, “even if ivory is the primary motivation for elephant poaching, regulating the international and domestic trade in other elephant parts will ensure that the new restrictions on the ivory market do not have the impact of incentivizing killing elephants for other valuable parts.”

Masha Kalinina, an international wildlife trade policy specialist with the Humane Society, notes that this second concern is especially urgent now that China is instituting a broad ivory ban, effective with the new year. “Businesses are clever,” she explains. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a shift in marketing from ivory to skin products. This is why our goal is to ban all wildlife products. The demand is insatiable, moving from one item to the next. You can see this in the way businesses respond to restrictions. That’s why we should value elephants alive, not for their parts.”

ZIMBABWE: ZERO TOLERANCE OF CORRUPTION

Zimbabwe is the primary exporter of elephant skins and many other wildlife products. ZimParks’ website offers a stunning range, including elephant bones, feet and tails (with and without hair), the skins and skulls of dozens of other species, and live animals and hunting targets ranging from hippos to honey badgers.

But Zimbabwe’s wildlife management system, once upheld as exemplary, has like other institutions been battered by the country’s political turmoil, economic implosion, and corruption.

“We have no confidence in the Zimbabwe government’s wildlife management, whether you’re talking about trophy hunting, ivory, or controlling poaching, or skin exports,” says Iris Ho, a Humane Society International program officer specializing in elephant issues.

Other conservationists are more hopeful. “Zimbabwe’s elephants are relatively well looked after,” Kenya-based Save the Elephants recently declared. “Over the last 18 months the country has done serious planning work for the conservation of its elephants.”

Farawo, of ZimParks, promises a crackdown on ivory trafficking following the November ouster of President Robert Mugabe after 37 years of increasingly repressive and erratic rule. “President [Emmerson] Mnangagwa declared zero tolerance on corruption during his inauguration speech, and we will not allow these illegal activities to happen again in our lifetime,” he wrote in an email. “Under the new dispensation, we want to make Zimbabwe work again,” Farawo says. “We want to sustainably conserve out wildlife. Please give us a chance.”

Even the most optimistic observers are waiting to see if such promises pan out. ZimParks, which does not receive government funding, relies on safari tourism, sport hunting, and wildlife exports, and exploitation is a perennial temptation. Poaching, once rare, has grown dramatically, especially in the country’s north.

The Humane Society’s Ho sees special grounds for concern in China’s growing commercial presence in Zimbabwe, with which it has long had close ties. Chinese buyers have begun appearing at ZimParks’s hide auctions. “I heard two years ago the Chinese are buying up the elephant skins,” says Florida hides dealer Henry Slaughter. “They buy everything. It’s gotten harder to get. Now with elephants you take what you can get. It may not be a perfect piece.”

Idaho leatherworker Van Amburg says the buyer for the Zimbabwe tannery he uses told him he saw Chinese bidding for the first time this year. “Usually he’s one of three or four at the auction,” says Van Amburg. “This year there were five or six he didn’t know, and they were all Asian.”

According to Van Amburg, the Chinese bidders say they’re buying the hides for “soup,” not boots. “The buyer verified that they’re putting one-inch chunks of crust into soups as an invigorating medicinal that’s supposed to be good for the skin.” (Crust is leather that has been tanned and dried but not finished.)

Pastes made of elephant skin have long been used in various Southeast and East Asian countries to treat eczema and other skin conditions. A standard Chinese traditional medicine reference includes directions for soaking, drying, grilling, and pulverizing it to treat open wounds, bedsores, and nausea.

However, Ho says, “there are many better-known and more widely available alternatives than elephant skins to treat these illnesses.” She thinks that importing and selling African elephant skins for medicinal purposes “is likely a scheme cooked up by traders and dealers.”

If so, this follows a pattern recently seen in China, where traders have promoted elephant-skin jewelry and new medicinal uses, spurring a wave of elephant poaching in Myanmar. But consuming tanned leather is a weird and dubious use, Van Amburg says. “That’s chemically treated hide they’re eating. All the leatherworkers are pretty grossed out by it.”

Eric Scigliano is the author of Love, War and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans, also published as Seeing the Elephant.

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