WASHINGTON—African elephants are being massacred across much of the continent, with illegal slaughter accounting for 90 percent of recorded deaths in central Africa. The animals are being killed for their tusks, despite a 1989 ban on international ivory trading. While motivation for the rise in killings is most commonly linked to China’s demand for ivory, National Geographic magazine reveals in its October 2012 cover story “Blood Ivory” that religion is a driver of the illegal ivory trade in key countries, including China.
National Geographic reports that representatives of the Catholic Church in the Philippines and practicing Buddhists in Thailand and China are actively complicit in the illegal ivory trade or unwittingly facilitate it. Their actions appear to be motivated by religious beliefs that ivory as a carving material best symbolizes purity and devotion. These devotional markets are supplied in part by groups who smuggle the ivory from Africa through middleman countries such as Malaysia.
CITES, the treaty organization that sets international wildlife trade policy, has viewed the Philippines primarily a way station for ivory destined for China. But author Bryan Christy’s report for National Geographic exposes a thriving and devout Catholic market for ivory in the Philippines, one where the head of protocol for the country’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese gives Christy smuggling tips and contact information for his favorite carvers. The ivory is used for elaborately carved religious icons that are integral to many Filipinos’ practice of their faith.
Christy traces the Catholic fascination with ivory to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, where ivory Catholic images are for sale. While the Vatican in its role as a governmental entity has signed transnational agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, it has not signed the CITES 1989 global trade ban on ivory.
The elephant is revered in Buddhism, and in Thailand demand is driven by the ironic idea that carving in ivory honors both the animal and Buddha. Elephant keepers legally sell the clipped tusk tips of live domesticated Asian elephants, but this legal trade provides cover for smuggled African ivory, which is easily mixed in with Asian ivory. Corruption is rife, with one monk offering to assist Christy in transporting smuggled African ivory inside Thailand — and advising that if anything goes wrong, Christy should tell officials he’s bringing the ivory to the monk’s temple.
In addition to revealing the links between religious leaders and the illegal ivory trade, Christy exposes flaws in strategies adopted by CITES, including overreliance on ivory seizures as the metric for estimating smuggling activity, which doesn’t accurately portray poaching behavior. This results in skewed analysis and led to a mistake with grave consequences — CITES’ endorsement of a massive purchase by China and Japan of more than 115 tons of legal ivory from four African countries in 2008. The sale has accelerated the mass slaughter of elephants now underway. Overemphasis on seizures continues to misdirect enforcement efforts, Christy reports, rewarding countries for confiscating ivory instead of prosecuting criminals higher up the demand chain — including large-scale dealers and kingpins whose crimes cost the lives of both elephants and the African rangers hired to protect them.
“Blood Ivory,” an investigative report authored by Bryan Christy with photographs from award-winning photojournalist Brent Stirton, is the cover story of the October issue of National Geographic. It is available as a digital edition on Sept. 14. The print edition goes on newsstands Sept. 25. The story is available online at ngm.com/blood-ivory at 10 a.m. (ET, U.S.) on Sept. 14.