Tourists across Vietnam are being hawked with a brand new ware: jewelry embedded with elephant-tail hairs. Sold as lucky and protective totems, the bracelets and rings have one visibly embedded hair from an elephant's thick tail. To prove authenticity, some sellers have gone so far as to have decapitated elephant tails on hand to show eager onlookers as they cut a strand of hair and place it inside the souvenir.
Many poachers who are interested in selling into this particular scheme simply cut off the elephant's tail and then leave them to continue into the wild, a practice that leaves these giants without a crucial appendage that helps them protect themselves and safely navigate the world. Furthermore, crude tail cuttings leave elephants open for a host of bacterial infections and potential parasites.
The genesis of the fad has roots in Vietnamese culture. In certain pockets of the Southeast Asian country where elephants used to have a more substantial presence, local legend dictated that if you found an elephant-tail hair by chance on the forest floor, it could bring you luck. Back-alley entrepreneurs have co-opted this tradition and are stockpiling the hairs, which is a little bit like going to a market in Ireland and buying your very own four-leaf clover. Perhaps none of these things were ever lucky, but the kismet of self-discovery led to the aura of the unknown. Now tourists and sellers are taking a short cut to capitalize off our favorite animal.
And it's a fairly lucrative short cut: a well-designed piece of jewelry with an intact hair can retail for around US $900.
Education can be an important tool to stifle this trend in its infancy, but that would require a coordinated effort of both public education and consumer education, as well as training for vendors to make a living on a more socially sustainable product.
In the interim, if you find yourself interested in an elephant-oriented souvenir, we have an alternative suggestion:
Elephant Poo Poo Paper (Starting at $8.99)
It's not a fun pun. It's as straightforward as can be. Poo Poo Paper has been taking elephant waste and transforming it into beautiful stationery for over a decade. Perfect for your eco-conscious friend or just a surreptitious way to drop a thank-you note to your in-laws while secretly stuffing their mailbox with elephant waste.