They decided to take to the track 19 elephants, and discovered something macabre

Newborn Asian elephant Tun Kai is pictured with members of his family on the first day of a public appearance in the Planckendael Zoo in Mechelen, Belgium, 9 March 2018. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

Poaching of elephants for their ivory is already devastated populations, but poaching the animals for their skin can have disastrous consequences, according to a new study in which the “heartbreaking” the practice in Myanmar.

The poaching was not thought to be a major problem in the country at the beginning of the three-year study with 19 elephants in the wild, are equipped with GPS-collars, because the tusks appear only in the 25% to 30% of the male Asian elephants.

But almost by accident, researchers discovered that an organized poaching operation. “We started to see a lot of the elephants off of the map in a fairly alarming way,” John McEvoy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, tells Smithsonian.

All 19 elephants have disappeared or changed death in a 13.5 square meter area in less than two years. Another 40 elephants were found dead in areas of south-central Myanmar, their skin and trunks removed.

Investigators then learned of the poachers were to pay thousands of dollars to learn from an elephant, the location and killing of animals specifically for their skin. In neighboring China, where it is used in traditional medicine, elephant skin sells for about $350 per pound, National Geographic reported earlier.

Although the size of the problem is not fully known, researchers say that this method of poaching could be a disaster for the Asian elephants are already suffering from loss of habitat.

All the elephants are targeted, instead of only tusked elephants, and “the hunting of females and calves is a really fast way to drive in the direction of a kind of extinction,” McEvoy says.

“This is especially worrisome for Myanmar, where the wild elephant population plunged from an estimated 10,000 people in the 1940s, to an estimated 1,430-2,065 today,” the study in PLOS comments.

(Authorities tested human excrement in the hope of identifying a poacher.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Elephants are Now being Slaughtered for a New Reason

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