Tusk to Tail: the other half of the trade

Posted on 04.07.2023 | Tag: School and Community

May 14, 2017

-          How much does this cost? – A European tourist standing next to me asked the shop-owner.

-          1980 Rand – the owner shouted out her answer.

-          That’s expensive! – said the tourist, her nose scrunched up.

-          Because it made from elephant tail hair, love.

Poaching has taken a heavy toll on elephant populations across Africa: in just three years, over 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers. Almost 50% of the elephant population in Eastern Africa has gone, forever. In May 2015, the first elephant was killed in Kruger National Park, South Africa, due to poaching in the last 10 years. By the end of that year, 21 more had been killed. This number increased to 46 in 2016 (SANPark)

Based on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), African elephants are listed on Appendix I since 1989, meaning that the trade of their products is highly prohibited. However, the demand for elephant ivory from many countries in the world, including China, Hong Kong, America, Thailand and may other countries is the driving force behind the illegal trade and poaching of elephants. In order to support international conservation efforts, China – one of the largest markets for elephant ivory - has promised to shut down its trade in elephant ivory.

However, what about the open trade in other elephant parts such as the very popular jewellery made of elephant tail hairs?

In the busy shopping centre of Cape Town, I found no less than 1000 jewellery items made of elephant tail hairs, openly advertised and sold to curious tourists. These tail hairs are normally secured together with silver, gold, and sometime even precious stones. Rings, necklaces, bracelets, even earrings can be made from the hair of the elephants. You name the products; they will have it for you. The price increases depending on the size of the items, and what accompanies it.

Jewellery made from elephant tail hairs found in Cape Town shopping central

Halfway across the Earth, in Cambodia, where I conducted a survey on the illegal trade of ivory in 2016, a huge amount of jewellery made from elephant products, such as ivory and elephant tail hair, were found too (Nguyen.2016). Similar to the case of the elephant ivory, the trader tends to tell me these parts are harvested from captive Asian elephants. However with international trade banned and only 71 captive elephants in the country, it is obvious that the amount of items found in the domestic market of Cambodia  by far exceeds what could be provided by captive elephants. One of the most expensive items found in Cambodia was a bracelet made of elephant ivory and elephant tail hair, decorated with gold. This item was advertised for 5000 USD. Not only openly for sale in the market, raw and products made from elephant ivory and tail hairs were also advertised on social media, such as Facebook, in Vietnam (Nguyen.2017). Each hair strand can be sold for 10 USD, a whole tail (as seen in the picture below), can be bought for 100 USD.

Elephant tails for sale on Vietnamese Facebook. Read our report for more details.

Currently, very little attention is given to the illegal trade in elephant tail hair. It is worth noting that most of the shops illegally trading elephant ivory are also openly selling elephant tail hairs and other wildlife products in Vietnam and Cambodia. There is also no domestic African elephant in Africa and the trade of any elephant parts is prohibited. One might argue that these elephant tail hairs are made from culled elephants; however South Africa  stopped this practice in 1994.

Tourism, particularly nature-based tourism, is an important sector of the African economy as it strives for sustainable development. It is crucial for the government of South Africa to protect species such as elephant from unsustainable exploitation. Tourists should be made aware of the illegal nature of the trade in elephant parts, and government and non-government organisations should take this trade more seriously, as it is very likely that products made from elephant tail hairs represent just the tips of the much larger iceberg.

For more information, please contact our director Trang Nguyen: trang.nguyen@wildact-vn.org