Elephants are Dying for Your Sins

An elephant had to die for your ivory crucifix, Islamic prayer beads or Buddhist amulet. Of all the “evil” in the world caused by religious belief and practice, threatening the existence of these majestic animals is one of the most ignored.


According to “Ivory Worship”, a report by Bryan Christy published in National Geographic in October 2012, the premier use of blood ivory is the manufacture of religious trinkets and artefacts. “No matter where I find ivory, religion is close at hand,” said Christy.

In 1979, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million, but by 1989 only 600,000 remained. During this same decade, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed a worldwide ban on the trade of ivory. Many countries joined this treaty to protect the elephant from potential extinction, and elephant populations increased again. However, since then elephant massacres have risen back to record highs for the last 30 years. And estimated 25 000 elephants are poached every year, with poachers sometimes using rocket launchers and AK-47 to kill entire herds. If the trend continues, the elephant could be wiped out in less than 3 decades.

Some of the last big tuskers gather in Tsavo, Kenya. A single large tusk sold on the local black market can bring $6,000, enough to support an unskilled Kenyan worker for ten years.

The article sites China, Thailand and The Philippines as the great consumers, but artefacts of ivory have also been found to be prominent in countries like Italy, Egypt, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Even the Vatican itself has been implicated. Gift shops within the Vatican sell artefacts made of ivory and are being investigated to determine if the ivory is illegal. The Vatican is a sovereign nation, but it’s not a signatory of the CITES treaty, which makes it exempt from the restriction on ivory trade. Illegal ivory comes from poached animals, legal ivory from animals that died naturally, although the sale of both are prohibited by countries who signed the treaty.


The home of a Filipino collector is lavish with ivory religious icons. “I don’t see the elephant,” says another Filipino collector. “I see the Lord.” (c) Brent Stirton


Elephants and Catholics

Philippine Catholics believe that ivory reflects one’s piety to and adoration of God. Fibreglass and wood are suitable substitutes, but ivory is more expensive, and the monetary investment is considered a measure of one’s devotion. Priests encourage members of their congregation to buy “new” ivory, —”so the history of an image will start in you.” Filipino priests will bless Catholic images made of illegal ivory for their followers.

If you need advice on how to smuggle ivory, ask a priest. “Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it so it looks shitty with blood,” Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, archdiocese of Cebu, told Christy. “This is how it is done.”

[By the time the NG article was published, Msgnr. Garcia was removed from his position as archdiocese – Not for ivory, but because allegations resurfaced about a child abuse when he was a priest in Los Angeles over 20 years ago. He is currently under investigation by Filipino authorities to determine if his considerable collection of ivory statues is legal.]


Kruba Dharmamuni, aka the Elephant Monk, keeps Asian elephants at his temple in Thailand. Activists accuse him of starving one elephant to use its ivory for amulets, a charge he rejects. (c) Brent Stirton


Buddha and the Elephant

The elephant is a symbol of Thailand and is revered in Buddhism. It is said that the Buddha’s mother dreamed of a white elephant the night he was conceived. Ivory is widely used in Buddhism to make amulets and carvings. Monks give away ivory trinkets in return for donations. Some Buddhists believe that ivory protects against black magic. Kruba Dharmamumi, also known as the Elephant Monk, wears an ivory elephant head pendant attached to ivory prayer beads around his neck. The beaded chain is said to represent the 108 human passions. “Ivory ward off bad spirits,” the prominent monk told National Geographic. Dharmamumi makes thousands of dollars selling amulets made of ivory at his temple gift shop.


A sculpture like this can take a master carver years to produce. Front and center are the popular Taoist gods Shou, Lu, and Fu—symbols of long life, money, and luck. “We hope—no, we insist—we can continue to protect these skills,” says Wang Shan, secretary-general of the China Arts and Crafts Association. (c) Brent Stirton


Elephant vs. Dragon

China is one of the biggest markets for the ivory trade. Although ivory is often used for secular purposes, carvings of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses are very popular. Kai Guang, the opening of light, is a ceremony performed by Buddhist monks to consecrate religious icons. Ivory is preferred because of the value attached to the material. “To be respectful of the Buddha,” Christy quotes a Chinese collector, “one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious.” Collectors spend vast amounts of money on statues, easily paying around $215,000 US for a carved ivory Guanyin, a Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess.



Legislation? What legislation?

Loopholes for trading ivory are easily found. Ivory obtained before the 1989 ban may be legally traded in any country in the world. In Thailand, indigenous ivory may be traded under certain circumstances. “Because this is about faith, and because faith requires suspension of disbelief, ivory traded for religious purposes doesn’t garner the aggressive scrutiny it might if it were carved into, say, chess pieces,” wrote Christy. In the Philippines you may be able to get a certificate from the National Museum of the Philippines declaring your image to be antique.


Interactive Infographic by National Geographic

The CITES regulation is supposed to stop the trade of ivory, but it occasionally allows “one-time only” sales, like to Japan in 1999 and China in 2008, which only ends up fuelling the demand for more ivory. Permitting China to import ivory opened the floodgates to laundering illegal ivory and stockpile tusks, with the hopes that another “one-time only” sale will be allowed. CITES must re-institute a clear, unequivocal, permanent ban on ivory trading.

The illegal ivory trade affects humans greatly as well. Anti-poaching campaigns in conflict zones lead to many clashes between poachers and park rangers. Hundreds of people all over Africa have been killed as a result of the fighting. Ivory may be financing international terrorism, and groups like Somalia’s Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab, Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army have been linked to blood ivory, according to a report by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). Poaching and smuggling is used as a method to generate funds for these organizations.


To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of this year six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants; meanwhile, rangers killed 23 poachers. (c) Brent Stirton


An end to the madness

A solution to the elephant poaching problem seems so simple. Top religious leaders need to publicly condemn the practise of using ivory for religious purposes. Religious institutions need to change their official stance on ivory and urge priests, monks and mullahs to encourage members of their communities not to use ivory.

Refraining from encouraging members of your congregation to possess ivory artefacts may not be enough. Religious leaders helped to create the demand, they can help end the demand. Religious institutions demand unquestioned devotion. If condemnation of ivory becomes official policy, enforced from higher up, it should eventually trickle down to worshippers. It may seem simple, but getting them to act may not be.

The SCB is encouraging religious leaders in Asian countries to issue public statements on the severity of the ivory trade and the direct and negative impact that the religious use of ivory has on elephant populations and local communities. At time of writing I could not find a report on any progress, but at least they have a plan.

The Roman Catholic catechism states that, “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” Before publishing the report, National Geographic asked the Vatican to comment on the devotional use of ivory, and how this may conflict with Catholic doctrine.

After a long delay, and only after being subjected to a National Geographic campaign to urge readers to bombard him with emails, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi finally issued a statement. In an exhaustive 2,460-word response to the National Geographic campaign, Father Lombardi provided detailed answers to the charge that the Vatican has been involved in the illegal ivory trade. Although he said that the Holy See was very unlikely to make a major policy statement on the issue, he promised to bring the issue to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; encourage Vatican Radio programming in Africa opposing poaching; and publicize statements by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences emphasizing the need to preserve the environment and animal species.

So, not much by the way of encouraging people to stop using ivory for religious purposes, just more telling people not to poach, and not taking responsibility for the demand. As we’ve seen in most illegal trade industries, like drugs, prostitution and rhino horn, trying to stop the supply is near impossible if you don’t try to stop the demand. While one cannot accuse the Vatican of causing the problem, one can castigate them for their unwillingness to influence their followers. The most discouraging part of Father Lombardi’s response is when he shifts blame to non-Catholic use of ivory. It may be true that, compared to Eastern religions, Catholic ivory is only a small market, but that is no reason to deny the problem.

Again, it seems like we can’t rely on religious institutions to come to their senses. Hopefully we can make their followers come to their senses. Hopefully. It may seem futile, but that’s no reason to give up. The survival of elephants depend on it. Keep spreading the word about the murder of elephants. Maybe fewer people would want an ivory amulet. Keep bombarding religious institutions, maybe they will cave under pressure. Do not allow this scandal to be ignored any longer.


If you would like to express your thoughts, you can write to: Father Federico Lombardi: Lombardi@pressva.va, copying Ms. Cristina Ravenda: Ravenda@pressva.va


UPDATE: The government of Thailand has vowed to ban internal ivory trade.

I have since discovered that the Thai government has vowed to end internal ivory trade, although no timeline has been mentioned. Buddhist leaders in Thailand also started holding prayer ceremonies for poached elephants, and are encouraging their followers to reject the use of ivory. Let us hope the clergy of other religions as well as the political leaders of other countries follow suit.


Cor Rautenbach
Atheist Movement of South Africa

Cor Rautenbach

Cor Rautenbach grew up in the Kalahari Desert – with no atheist influence, no internet and no literature – just a reasonable sense of logic applied while keenly observing the religious.  He hasn’t been to a church sermon since the age of 14. No, he does not worship Satan.



Further Reading:


UPDATE: The government of Thailand has vowed to ban internal ivory trade.


How to help

Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), a wildlife law-enforcement nongovernmental organization (NGO) born nine years ago to combat bush-meat trafficking. Based in Cameroon, where more than 300 elephants were massacred in early 2012, LAGA also focuses on stamping out ivory trafficking.

One group in Europe that focuses on ivory traffickers is the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, a small but influential NGO that’s been exposing international crimes against wildlife since 1984. In 1987 its landmark use of undercover filming techniques to document ivory smuggling played a pivotal role in establishing the worldwide ban two years later. And in 2002 EIA helped investigate the largest ivory seizure since the ban went into effect— more than seven tons of African ivory bound for Japan were seized in Singapore.

For more information about LAGA, go to laga-enforcement.org.
For more information about EIA, go to eia-international.org or Facebook.com/environmentalinvestigationagency.

Here are some other organizations doing important work to combat the illegal ivory trade:
Save the Elephants: savetheelephants.org
Big Life Foundation: biglifeafrica.org
International Fund for Animal Welfare: ifaw.org
SOS Elephants: soselephants.org

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