Science & Nature

Is a U.S. retailer selling boots made from endangered elephants?

Is a U.S. retailer selling boots made from endangered elephants? thumbnail

Published January 9, 2023

10 min read

The six-pound box arrived on a steamy June day, hot from its ride in the delivery van. The label said “Boot Barn” in capital letters, and when I opened the package, the oaky scent of leather enveloped me. The lower half of the boots had a distinct wrinkly pattern that was rough to the touch. Stamped inside the boots’ shaft: “genuine elephant leather.”

At a list price of $799.99, they’d been advertised online as El Dorado Men’s Brass Indian Elephant Exotic Boots. That is, boots purportedly made from an endangered Asian elephant.

After four years as a reporter for Wildlife Watch, an investigative project funded by the National Geographic Society, I knew there was a market for just about any exotic species, from leeches to rare succulents. I’d become difficult to shock. But selling Asian (or “Indian”) elephant boots? That sounded unprecedented—and potentially unlawful under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), according to John Scanlon. From 2010 to 2018 Scanlon was secretary-general of CITES, which regulates the global wildlife trade. Asian and African elephants are endangered animals. How could Boot Barn, a major U.S. retailer, be selling these boots?

So began an inquiry that involved months of interviews, research in trade and financial records, innovative materials analysis, and any number of dead ends. What we learned, finally, was a hard but valuable lesson: Efforts to monitor compliance with regulations that govern wildlife products can be stymied by the difficulties of proving the items’ provenance.

Only 400,000 African elephants and 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Most Asian elephants are found in India and have what could be called a biological advantage over their African counterparts: More often than not, they are tuskless. That helps shield them from the ivory trade, which has driven the slaughter of African elephants. Among Asian elephants, only males can grow tusks, and relatively few develop them.

The chief threat to Asian elephants still comes from people, by way of habitat loss and human-animal conflict on farms and other land. Increasingly, the trade in elephant skin has also become a problem; the skin is sometimes used to make beads worn for good luck in Myanmar and China. But there hadn’t been reports of Asian elephant boots—so National Geographic set out to discover if Boot Barn’s boots actually contained elephant skin (and, if so, how they could be sold by a major U.S. retailer). I talked to wildlife and trade law experts, I scoured CITES records looking for legal elephant-skin shipments, and I identified which company made the boots—but beyond that, answers were hard to find. In the hope of determining the boots’ origin, National Geographic bought a pair to send for DNA testing.

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Know the Species

Picture of three elephants.

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Photograph by Brent Stirton

Asian elephants are about eight times as rare as their African cousins. They’re also smaller, have rounded ears and an extra toenail, and more often are tuskless. They employ their entire trunks to lift objects, while African elephants have two trunk tips for such tasks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the purchase, I’d called and emailed Boot Barn for weeks, asking about the boots and their sourcing. I got no response to almost a dozen emails, phone calls, and LinkedIn messages addressed to the retailer’s chief financial officer, communications office, and people listed as press and investor relations contacts. I also called customer service and reached a representative who said she’d look into it and call me back; I never heard from her. The last request for comment, addressed to Boot Barn’s president and chief executive officer, was sent in the weeks before this article went to press. That request received no response.

Boot Barn’s advertisement said the boots were made by a company called El Dorado. By searching for El Dorado’s patent records and then Boot Barn’s public financial disclosures to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, I discovered that El Dorado is an “exclusive brand” of Boot Barn Holdings, Inc.; Boot Barn’s public website lists El Dorado as one of the boot brands the retailer has created.

I asked Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic Explorer who used to work as a wildlife inspector, to examine the boot photograph in the advertisement. He said the material did look like real elephant leather he’d seen. Teresa Telecky, a zoologist and the vice president of the wildlife department at Humane Society International, said the same. “I’ve never seen Asian elephant–skin boots for sale,” she told me.

When I asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—which polices U.S. companies’ trade in products from protected species—about the rules for elephant skin, the response was a statement: “As a result of the Asian elephant’s protection status, commercial import and subsequent sale of skins could only be legal pursuant to the antique exception of the Endangered Species Act.” The antique exception says products from protected species can be imported and sold—if they are at least a hundred years old. A similar CITES exception allows global trade of products that date to before the animal was placed on its banned list—in the Asian elephant’s case, that happened in 1975. Even then, global sales of the product would have to be noted in CITES trade records, which are public. When I searched those records, no shipments of Asian elephant skins seemed to line up as a potential source.

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Another grim possibility: What if the skins had come from captive elephants in the U.S., perhaps sold off by one of the country’s numerous roadside zoos? Telecky noted it would still be illegal to sell them across state lines under the Endangered Species Act.

Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, had another theory about the boots’ origin. He suggested that if the boots were genuinely elephant skin, it might have come from a recent U.S. import of African elephant–skin pieces from Zimbabwe. Though trade in Asian elephant parts is prohibited under CITES, there’s a legal carve-out for the trade in elephant hides from four African nations that have relatively stable elephant populations: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

Lab Testing

Picture of four plastic containers with leather samples.

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Photograph by Rebecca Hale

At biologist Sam Wasser’s University of Washington lab, researchers had successfully identified elephant ivory origins using DNA analysis. To attempt the same with leather from Boot Barn’s boots, they cut small samples and ripped them into shreds with a razor blade—a low-tech way to get as much surface area as possible, which increases the chances of finding DNA. They put the samples into chemicals that break cell walls apart, basically turning the shreds into a brown sludge that wildlife genetics lab manager Zofia Kaliszewska described as “gross and pulpy.” They spent about a week incubating the sample, adding chemicals, trying to find any usable DNA. But eventually, their computer spit out DNA results for only their control samples—none for the Boot Barn samples.  


To explore the question Ashe raised—might Boot Barn’s “Indian” boots have been made from African elephant?—I called Sam Wasser at the University of Washington. He directs a lab that has successfully traced the origins of elephant ivory using DNA analysis. If we provided the boots, could his team determine whether they’re elephant—and if so, which species? Wasser said they’d try but couldn’t guarantee that the leather-tanning process had left usable nuclear DNA.

After the boots arrived at my house on that hot June day, I shipped them to Wasser’s lab. Samples of the leather were prepared and tested, but no nuclear DNA was found. Wildlife genetics lab manager Zofia Kaliszewska said the DNA could be absent because “tannins had killed everything” during processing—or because it truly wasn’t elephant. In a last-ditch effort, Kaliszewska had the lab look for mitochondrial DNA, which might have survived even if the nuclear DNA they’d hoped to find had been destroyed. That mtDNA couldn’t identify an elephant species, but it might at least tell us if elephant skin was present at all. The lab team then spent several days looking for mtDNA. It struck out there too.

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So after all the time, money, and effort, we still couldn’t determine the boots’ provenance. Was Boot Barn making and selling boots legally or illegally from Asian elephants? Or making boots legally or illegally from African elephants and misrepresenting them? Or were these boots not made from elephant at all?

Here’s what we can say: Our investigation of the boots’ origin gives a glimpse of the obstacles that wildlife law enforcement, regulatory, and trade agencies face in monitoring online sellers of wildlife goods. As hard as these groups may work, they’re likely outgunned on the internet, a global hub in the multimillion-dollar black market for exotic animals and animal products—a key reason Wildlife Watch was founded at National Geographic.

As months passed, I continued to watch Boot Barn’s website. By the time this article went to press, the company seemed eager to move its elephant leather boots. They were advertised on sale, “34% off.”

Dina Fine Maron is a reporter for Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. It’s supported by the National Geographic Society. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at

This story appears in the February 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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