BETTER THAN BLOOD BEADS

WHY ELEPHANTS ARE BEING SKINNED ALIVE FOR FASHION The demand for ivory has made elephants the poster animal for the illegal wildlife trade. While poachers remain bent on killing elephants for their tusks, the insidious “blood bead” trade has made elephant skin the latest body part prized by the black market.

For Loxodonta africana, better known as the African elephant, things are looking up. The species may have suffered a shocking decline over the last century, but thanks to concerted efforts by governments, park authorities and conservation NGOs, the population trend is now increasing, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The African elephant’s Asian cousin, however, is not faring so well. Estimates put the population of Elephas maximus at just 46,000, compared to around 415,000 for the larger African elephant.
Although threatened with habitat loss, the Asian elephant has been spared the brunt of ivory poaching, as none of the females and only some of the males grow tusks. But in April 2018, a report by the charity Elephant Family revealed how a growing demand for elephant skin has placed every Asian elephant in the poacher’s crosshairs.
To be precise, it is not the grey, wrinkled exterior skin that is fuelling the deaths of Asian elephants in Myanmar. Whereas poached elephants in Africa are found with their heads horrifically mutilated in order to remove the tusks, Asian elephants are instead having layers of skin stripped from their hides. Images of slain elephants lying dead in remote forests and rivers, their lifeless heads slumped to the ground with flesh torn from them in grotesque ribbons, are now being distributed around the world.
The objects prized enough to warrant such slaughter, as with so many things in the illegal wildlife trade, are sickeningly insignificant. Skinning elephants yields deep layers of subcutaneous tissue that are rich in blood vessels, which can then be crafted into small beads that are polished to a high shine and turned into bracelets and necklaces.

Christy Williams, Country Director for Myanmar at the World Wildlife Fund, has said that the Chinese make up 90% of the market for these “blood beads”. In China, the beads are marketed as wenwan jewellery, a style of traditional Chinese collectible that also makes use of rhino horn and ivory. Death, it seems, is the latest fashion accessory here.
The sickening chain of events that ends on a discerning consumer’s wrist begins in the wilderness. Poison is the favoured murder method, which once consumed by the elephant will spread through its entire body over the course of two to three days, causing agonising pain to the animal before it meets the merciful embrace of death. It is in the poacher’s interests to stay close – the prized layers of skin are best harvested as quickly as possible after the elephant dies, lest the blood concentration reduce and the beads lose their lustre. It is thought that some elephants are skinned while they are still alive.
Although elephants can be found in a number of countries throughout Southeast Asia, the blood bead trade is unquestionably focused in Myanmar. Poaching incidents have increased dramatically here since 2010, with some elephant carcasses found completely stripped of their skin. As well as a wild population of around 2,000, there are around 6,000 captive elephants living in Myanmar, each one now a target for the blood bead trade following the logging moratorium that the government of Myanmar imposed in 2016. These elephants, raised in captivity to work in the logging industry and unsuited to a life in the wild, now live perilously close to the poacher’s knife.

PROJECT IMPACT

PROJECTS SUPPORTED BY THIS EXPEDITIONS FOR CHANGE DEPARTURE A portion of the trip fees for this one of kind experience will be donated to a USA based 501c3 charity called Inner Asian Conservation.
All donations are fully tax deductible. Fund will then be transferred to Grow Back For Posterity, a local Burmese NGO focused on Myanmar elephant and river dolphin conservation.

Now more than ever Myanmar needs engagement rather than isolation. Isolation would encourage a drift towards economic partners that do not prioritize human rights and environmental protection.

Why a trip incorporating both domesticated and wild elephant?

Beyond the fact that they are astonishing creatures every bit as smart as humans on an intuitional level, they are mammals in dire need of creative solutions to their plight.
Today there are over 5,000 domesticated timber elephants in Myanmar. They come from generations of timber elephants first domesticated in early British colonial times. Today at least half of these timber elephants are unemployed. Why? The original old growth teak forests of the country have been overcut. In the last three years, the government has smartly curtailed logging as a response. While this is good for the forests, it has thrown thousands of elephants and their mahouts into partial or full unemployment. Each mahout must support his family. To do so many have left or are considering leaving their elephants to seek employment in the cities. This leaves the elephant neglected which renders them susceptible to poachers or smugglers that sell them into slave labour. Abandoned elephants go feral leading to human elephant conflict. Such conflict nearly always ends in death for the elephant. Today the poaching of elephants has reached a critical stage with (during 2016- 2017) at least two wild or domestic elephants a week dying. Poaching is driven by demand for ivory, elephant skin, blood beads and elephant skin.

Isn’t interacting with elephants a contentious issue?

For good reason there is less riding of elephants as part of tourist attractions in many parts of Asia. The impetus for this arose with reports of cruel and inhumane treatment of elephants in poorly run circus and ‘wildlife theme parks’ in Cambodia and Thailand; those situations. It was an abomination of a very ancient human elephant working relationship in SE Asia. We do not support or encourage the riding of elephants in any destination.
Many reading this may have had some experience with elephant tourism. We ask that you clear your mind of those experiences as this will be something entirely different. Elephant assisted journeys, carefully done, are a partial solution to the huge issue of unemployed elephants faced by Myanmar Timber Enterprise - the entity that controls all timber elephants in Myanmar. This kind of conscious tourism is a viable and critical source of income for the mahouts and elephants. With these elephants working with us, this is the only source of income they have. At all times vets are with us and as you will see, meticulous care is given to the elephants in our care.
Critically, this type of tourism also demonstrates to the government of Myanmar and local people, that tourism focused on wildlife and traditional culture can be both sustainable and lucrative source of income where it is needed most - at the village level.

Walking with Elephants?

We do not ride the elephants, but the mahouts do. Riding is not necessary and even though these timber elephants could easily handle a single person and a mahout, it is just not necessary and we are interested in maximizing the welfare of the elephant. Each participant gets ‘their’ elephant for the duration of the trip so that one actually gets to know the elephant in an intimate way. The idea is to journey slowly through the landscape with elephants experiencing farmland, villages, deep forest, wildlife and number of different ethnic communities - as well as the elephant itself. Pace is critical here-we move at the pace of our elephants - often just walking alongside them listening to the comforting sound of their massive foot- pads moving over forest floor. The idea is to take our time. Our journeys seek to authentically replicate an ancient mode of travel undertaken by local elephant caravans since early pre-modern times.
While walking one learns how teak is logged on hillsides, how the symbiotic relationship between elephant and mahout enables them to jointly deal with challenges such as facing tigers and other wildlife, how they ford rivers or negotiate a steep hillside. You learn what wild shrubs elephants eat, how they individually fit into group hierarchies. You learn the history of logging in Myanmar in the actual locations where it occurred and the current state of the forests. These walks in essence are active classrooms. Further details on such topics are covered in evening lectures. Mornings begin like every day in care of an elephant-with an elephant bath. You can opt to watch or partake in this much-loved morning ritual that creates a strong bond of trust between elephant and mahout. After breakfast commence walking alongside our elephant deep into old growth forest replete with hoolock gibbons, several species of hornbill and ungulates such as barking deer. Sleep in tented comfort next to an adjacent brook to the sounds of owls and other nocturnals.

Your participation will help save wild elephants.

We (Myanmar forestry Dept, Smithsonian Institution and Aung Myo Chit's local NGO called Grow Back for Posterity) urgently need more interventions to save Myanmar’s wild elephants. An ongoing need are the funds to radio collar wild elephants so that we can better understand their migratory patterns and follow them in times of high risk from poachers such as during monsoon.
The collaring will be done through collaborative effort of Smithsonian Myanmar, Myanmar Forestry Dept and Grow Back for Posterity. The estimated cost of collaring an elephant and monitoring it for a year can be as high as $9K-15K. But the money is well worth it. A tax deductible portion of the cost of this trip will be donated (through US based 501 c3 Inner Asia Conservation, founded by Jon Miceler while at Yale School of Forestry nearly 18 years ago). Your contribution will provide you with yearlong updates on the condition of the elephant we collar.

Where does the collaring take place?

Today in Myanmar as few as 3000 wild elephants exist-down from perhaps 10,000 a decade ago. They follow ancient migration patterns covering large swaths of the country-including the Ayerwaddy Division and in several areas along the Chindwin river which sit adjacent to Tamanthi. Today much of their habitat is threated by conversion to agriculture. And, like their domesticated brethren, they are greatly threatened by poachers.
The exact location of these elephants is kept confidential to protect them from poachers. These and similar herds are those we will be attempting to see while on our trip. Your guides know where they are because some of the herd is radio collared. The majority of collard elephants in Myanmar (all collared by our guide Aung Myo Chit ) have been collared in southern Myanmar because that is where the highest rates of poaching have occurred.

This expedition also supports the Ayerwaddy Dolphins. What threats do they face?

The Ayerwaddy dolphins face alarming challenges. At last census only 72 Irrawaddy dolphins remained in the river, and just 23 of these are in the protected conservation zone. Just over 100 individual Burmese fishermen know how to cooperate with the dolphins in a unique fishing partnership. Increased boat traffic, along with logging, gold panning and the use of electric shocks in fishing all threaten the Irrawaddy dolphins and their ecosystem. A sobering reality.
If fortune favours guests will be lucky enough to encounter the dolphins. Once encountered we will follow discreetly behind the narrow canoes to witness this fascinating cooperation between the dolphin and fisherman. A tantalising flick of the dolphin’s fin “follow me”. Side fluke signals “ready” and then a final “tap tap” of the dolphins tail, and the fisherman throw their net. As the fisherman draws in the catch, the dolphins nibble at the fish poking out of the net. So incredibly magical is this rare experience, Aung Myo Chit is determined to sustain this symbiotic relationship by showing it to visitors who in term can be ambassadors to champion the cause for conserving this remarkable species.

Step by Step

THE VANITY FAIR CHANGING YOUR MIND TRAVEL AWARDS 2020 GASTÓN UGALDE

Provocative. Passionate. Political. Born in La Paz, this contemporary artist and activist has a deep connection to his homeland of Bolivia. "The mountains, the desert, this is where my art began," he says. "I’ve been walking around my incredible country for 40 years, from the Andes to the Amazonian jungles."

Provocative. Passionate. Political. Born in La Paz, this contemporary artist and activist has a deep connection to his homeland of Bolivia. "The mountains, the desert, this is where my art began," he says. "I’ve been walking around my incredible country for 40 years, from the Andes to the Amazonian jungles." photography, yet whatever his medium, his subject is his beloved country and its complexities. "Bolivia is unique in the Americas because 60 per cent of our population is indigenous," he says. "That is what really influences me: our everyday life, farmin practices, family rituals and cosmological visions of the universe." It’s a Bolivia most tourists don’t even glimpse.

Salt of the earth: Gastón Ugalde celebrates his homeland through installations in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats

His art includes a series of collages made from the coca leaf, and patchworks of Inca and Aymara blankets stitched together. But he may be best known for his installations in the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flats), such as a stairway of salt blocks leading to nothing.
To showcase the region further, he has recently begun guiding visitors into Uyuni, exploring and explaining the landscape to them. "I really feel like [my guests] become part of the artwork, that they’re not just observers but performers," he says. "And if people are interested in my art, they are interested in my country."

Green Light

THE VANITY FAIR CHANGING YOUR MIND TRAVEL AWARDS 2020 ANTJE VON DEWITZ

In a world where outdoor blurs with high design, street fashion and mountain sport, VAUDE is standing out as the manufacturer of sustainable wear, changing our minds on what to buy and what to wear on our travels.
An entrepreneur to the bone, Antje took over the family business 10 years ago and pledged that VAUDE would become Europe’s most sustainable outfitter. "I want to use my position to change behaviour, to engage myself in a world worth living in," she says.

The company, based in Tettnang, Germany, introduced a seal of sustainability, Green Shape, and a collection made of bio-based, recycled and natural materials. Last year, the German government, hand in hand with VAUDE, came up with a seal for German consumers. "We’re dragging other brands up with us, trying to raise consciousness," Antje says. There is a specific VAUDE eBay site where consumers can resell used products. They also work with iFixit, an online repair platform, to extend product life. At their upcycling workshop, they reuse material remnants.

Seal the deal: VAUDE CEO Antje von Dewitz has created seals of sustainability to help consumers make informed choices

Since 2012, the company has been climate neutral at their headquarters and the goal is to extend that worldwide. "Within five years, all our products will be made of recycled or natural-based materials," Antje says, including jackets from castor oil beans and fleeces from wood fibre. "At the beginning, sustainability was a drag on innovation, but now it’s become a driver."

Flock Together

THE VANITY FAIR CHANGING YOUR MIND TRAVEL AWARDS 2020 RUNE HØRSLEV-PETERSEN

When Rune opened his first ad agency, it had a very distinctive USP: an understanding of the youth market. "I was an expert in the young because I was young," he says. "To get PR, I said that everybody would be fired at the age of 29. I’d have to fire myself eventually, too."
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, he is not a typical ad man. "I can’t remember making anything that people would recognise as advertising," he says. "I start a project, and then the communication comes because of the nature of the thing."
With a remit to boost tourism in the Faroe Islands, the small Danish archipelago in the North Sea, he dreamt up Sheep View 360, attaching solar-powered cameras to sheep who wandered around this "small, pristine hidden gem nobody had heard of.

The concept was that the islands are so unexplored that even Google hadn’t been there," he says. Given the small budget and the goal of a big audience, Rune knew he had "to do something so spectacular or quirky that it became newsworthy. We believed it would get picked up, but we didn’t know to what degree." Seven thousand news stories later (and a reach of two billion), Google visited the following year and plotted the Faroes on Google Street View.

The right track: Rune Hørslev-Petersen champions smart tourism in the Faroe Islands, which benefits locals

But, he says, it's the Closed For Maintenance campaign of which he’s most proud. This saw the island shut down for a weekend, allowing only tourists who would volunteer to help fix paths, fences and viewpoints. Thousands applied to be part of the movement. "It was less about boosting tourism and more about how tourism could benefit the Faroese," he says. It was such a success, the islands will close for maintenance again in April, and other countries are looking to copycat the idea. "I try to do something good," Rune says, "not just beneficial for a product or a company but good for the world."

Thinking Twice

THE VANITY FAIR CHANGING YOUR MIND TRAVEL AWARDS 2020 AUNG MYO CHIT AND JON MICELER

"He’s my best friend," Jon says. "I couldn’t do this without him." Aung chips in: "We have a strong bond and the same common ideas." For the past 20 years, this unlikely pair have been actively trying to save the Asian elephant in Myanmar, to conserve the forest and to protect other wildlife such as the Irrawaddy river dolphin, gibbons, deer and hornbills.
Both Aung and Jon are committed conservationists. Aung has worked for the Smithsonian’s Myanmar programme, while Jon, from the U.S., was with the World Wildlife Fund in Asia for decades. They understand how tourism might finance their conservation goals.

For the last five years, they’ve been guiding visitors to the region on an ad hoc basis but they’ve recently launched two camps, under the name KnoWhere. At these, tourists can spend a few days walking with elephants formerly employed in the timber trade and now vulnerable to neglect or poaching. “We want to show that elephant tourism is viable without tourists riding,” Jon says.
“The idea is also to educate the mahouts to value their culture, to value the animals’ existence,” Aung continues. “If locals work with us for four or five days, they’ll earn what’s equal to one month’s income. If their life is better, they will look after the area.” Aung also trains the community in the skills of guiding. “I have a vision of this programme creating more environmentalists in the country,” he says.

Keeping an eye: Aung Myo Chit and Jon Miceler on a mission in Myanmar
Myanmar often feels weighted down with political problems but there are beacons of hope in the country, such as the work of these two men. “Tourism in Myanmar has a long history but this kind of tourism is new,” Aung says. “We have 40 national parks in the country but nobody comes to Myanmar to see wildlife. We hope we can change that.”

Gaining Ground

THE VANITY FAIR CHANGING YOUR MIND TRAVEL AWARDS 2020 ANJALI AND JAISAL SINGH

Jaisal’s was a barefoot childhood, spent running around the wilderness of Ranthambore National Park, watching his father and uncle at work, both renowned wildlife experts in India and documentary filmmakers. “When tiger cubs were born, my parents would pull me out of school so I wouldn’t miss them,” Jaisal says. “We’d sleep under a banyan tree, we wouldn’t even pitch a tent.”
By contrast, Anjali grew up in the world of the automotive business, a huge conglomerate that she now runs. “It is all factories and conferences, nothing like the space that I long to be in,” she sighs.
Born to rewild: Jaisal and Anjali Singh want to double the amount of protected wilderness

Together, they are a force. Jaisal opened his first lodge 20 years ago, before they met, but after coming together in 2006, they opened three more properties in quick succession, including JAWAI in the Aravalli Hills in southwest Rajasthan, their most ambitious conservation project. Working with local communities, private landowners and government, they are jigsawing together critical, albeit small, patches of contiguous land to create wildlife corridors, aiming to eventually link up with nearby Kumbhalgarh National Park. “When our guests see what we are doing, they become ambassadors for the project,” Jaisal says. “Without responsible tourism all this wilderness would disappear.”

To my ear, it sounds like a conservancy, along the lines of the East African model, an initiative untried in India. But if it works, JAWAI could be a template for the region. So far, they have managed to protect more than 50 square kilometres, and the workload is heavy—from trying to halt construction projects to purchasing tracts of land, shifting frontiers of national parks and aiming for a higher protection status for the area.
As we parted, Anjali showed me their private app on her phone: a dynamic map of the JAWAI area, which shows updates of any land deals done. “We’re hoping to almost double the amount of protected wilderness that is already there,” she says. “We’ll keep chipping away. We want to be able to look back when we’re old and say we were able to get it done.”