A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Will Religion Finally Kill Off the Elephants?

A statue of Christ, fashioned from ivory. Photo by Brent Stirton, National Geographic.

In Kenya, Christian, Muslim and Hindu leaders stand around a pile of ivory captured from elephant poachers and pray that religion will help “God’s creatures” to survive.

In the Philippines, at the other end of the supply chain, Monsignor Cristobal Garcia keeps an ivory carving of Jesus Christ hanging on a cross. In his waiting room, an ivory Our Lady of the Rosary holds an ivory infant Jesus, and an almost life-size ivory Mother of the Good Shepherd is seated beside another ivory Jesus.

In Kenya, Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation tells the Associated Press, “We are the ones who are driving God’s creatures to extinction.”

In the Philippines, reporter Bryan Christy, whose story “Blood Ivory” is on the cover of National Geographic’s October magazine, suggests to Msgr. Garcia that he might be interested in buying an ivory Santo Niño – the most important religious icon in the region. Garcia immediately explains how best to smuggle it into the United States. (“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it.”)

In Kenya, Hamza Mutunu, a Muslim leader from Tanzania, explains that “The general message is that taking care of the wildlife is part and parcel with our religion. We have a duty from the Prophet Mohammed. … Taking care of wildlife is within our religion.”

At a gallery right opposite the Vatican in St. Peter’s Square, the saleswoman tells Christy that if he buys an ivory crucifix, she can get it blessed for him by a Vatican priest and will then ship it to him.

Meanwhile, back in Kenya, a safari van continues to drive leaders from Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faiths around the country as they preach the message, according to Catholic priest Charles Odira, that “animals are part of God’s community.”

Hindu leader Preetika Bhanderi adds that “Hindu’s backbone is non-violence toward everything that has life.” This shoddy business is in no way limited to the Far East or to minor priests at the Vatican. Both the current pope and his beloved predecessor were involved in the ivory trade.

But frankly, the messages of these people cannot begin to compete with an ivory industry that’s driven by the insatiable appetites of the Catholic Church and Buddhist tradition. And with the Vatican firmly behind the ivory trade, it’s a totally losing battle.

Msgr. Garcia, who admitted to the Dallas Morning News that he had sexually abused altar boys in Los Angeles, was shipped off to the Philippines and told to stay away from children. Today, he’s one of the most prominent members of the church there.

Christy makes it clear that this shoddy business is in no way limited to the Far East or to minor priests at the Vatican. Both the current pope and his beloved predecessor were involved in the ivory trade:

Last year Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible. In 2007 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave an ivory Santo Niño to Pope Benedict XVI. For Christmas in 1987 President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan bought an ivory Madonna originally presented to them as a state gift by Pope John Paul II. All these gifts made international headlines. Even Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, [later the] father of the global ivory ban, once gave Pope John Paul II an elephant tusk.

© Brent Stirton/National Geographic

Blood Ivory“, in National Geographic’s October edition, is a must-read. It’s not a graphic account of the slaughter of elephants in Africa; instead it travels the world, from the Vatican to the Far East to Africa, giving us an inside look into the lives and businesses of the rich and religious, the corrupt and the carnal, mostly in the Philippines, in Thailand, and in the ivory behemoth of the whole tawdry business: China. And yes, China’s ivory business is rooted in religious “tradition”, too, despite its modern communist-capitalist gloss. Christy visits the Beijing ivory Carving Factory, which he describes as being a vast dentist’s office:

The whir of electric drills on tusks fills the air. Ivory dust lies heavy on windowpanes and doorframes and even coats my teeth as I make my way among men and women bent over images that repeat the religious and mythological motifs I find throughout China, such as Fu, Lu, and Shou, the gods of luck, money, and long life; the Happy Buddha; and Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess and who sometimes holds in her arms a male child, the “giving sons” Guanyin, popular under China’s one-child policy.

No matter where I find ivory, religion is close at hand. “Chinese people believe in the concepts these figures represent,” the head of the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory in Guangzhou tells me.

As wealth increases in China, more people have the time and the wherewithal to pursue activities beyond living from one day to the next – which for many of them leads to exploring their own traditions. Those traditions are largely religious and still revolve in large part around ivory.

By all accounts, China is the world’s greatest villain when it comes to smuggled ivory. In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country. For the first time in generations many Chinese can afford to reach forward into a wealthy future, and they can also afford to look back into their own vibrant past. One of the first places many look is religion.

Master ivory craftsman Li Chunke tells Christy: “The elephant is a good friend of man. When elephants die, they want to leave man something behind as a good deed to have a good next life.”

Li says that as a Buddhist, he abhors killing. His ivory comes from the government, he says, and is supposed to be from elephants who died of natural causes – as if he and his principal buyer, art dealer Xue Ping, really believe that elephants are currently dropping dead by the tens of thousands as a gift to humankind.

Just as some Filipino priests baptize ivory images, Buddhist monks perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons. “Ivory is very precious,” Xue tells me, “so to be respectful of the Buddha one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious.” It is a version of the same message I heard from Filipino Catholics: Ivory honors God.

Kruba Dharmamuni, the “Elephant Monk”, keeps Asian elephants at his temple in Thailand, where he’s been accused of starving an elephant to use her ivory for amulets. © Brent Stirton/National Geographic

In Thailand, a Buddhist priest known as the Elephant Monk sells all kind of body parts, from ivory to tiger fur to elephant skin, to bits of bone from the skulls of dead pregnant women. “Ivory removes bad spirits,” he tells Christy. Around his neck is an ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 108 human passions – including, we can assume, greed and murder.

The elephant is a symbol of Thailand and is revered in Buddhism. According to legend, a six-tusked white elephant entered the right side of Queen Maya the night she became pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama. The Elephant Monk believes he was an elephant in a past life. He tells me he has 100,000 followers around the world, though during my visit to his temple only a few show up. They kneel before him with offerings and receive an amulet he has blessed.

All this chicanery and superstition is literally driving the few remaining elephants to extinction. Soon there will be none left in the wild. In their place will be statuettes of elephants and icons of Jesus, carved out of the tusks that were hacked off their heads when entire families and herds were slaughtered and their lifeless bodies left to rot.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to endorse the blood ivory industry. While, in its role as a governmental entity, the Vatican has signed transnational agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, it has not signed the CITES 1989 global trade ban on ivory. And CITES, the treaty organization that sets international wildlife trade policy, is woefully flawed in its approach to smuggling.

When child molester Msgr. Garcia visited Pope John Paul II at his summer residence in 1990, the pope blessed his Santo Niño (holy child) icon. Back home in the Philippines, he still oversees the annual Hubo or “undressing” ceremony, in which, as Christy describes it:

Several altar boys work together to disrobe a small wooden statue of Christ dressed as a king, a replica of an icon devotees believe Ferdinand Magellan brought to the island in 1521. They remove its small crown, red cape, and tiny boots, and strip off its surprisingly layered underwear. Then the monsignor takes the icon, while altar boys conceal it with a little white towel, and dunks it in several barrels of water, creating his church’s holy water for the year, to be sold outside.

And then he goes back to his shabby business of buying, selling and smuggling what remains of nature’s largest land animal – creatures who are known for their intelligence, their sensitivity and the way they mourn their dead.

Will the Church mourn them when they are all finally gone?

Blood Ivory“, written by Bryan Christy, with photographs by Brent Stirton, is the cover story of the October edition of National Geographic. In the video below, Christy talks about the elephants he saw and the role of religion in their destruction.