God's Ivory

Photographs & Text by Brent Stirton

  • Share This:
Images from this feature are available to license via GettyImages.com.

In 1989 the world voted a global ban on the ivory trade. Since then, tens of millions of dollars in illegal ivory has been smuggled and hundreds of thousands of elephants have been slaughtered. No single ivory trafficking kingpin has ever been identified and sent to prison. Instead, the international community has blamed the illegal ivory trade entirely on China with little or no analysis. They have ignored another major driver of the ivory trade: that driver is RELIGION. The most common use of high-end ivory globally is the carving of religious icons. Across all religions, the faithful attempt to manifest their devotion through these carvings.

Around the world, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and others buy and trade ivory religious icons. Devotion trumps slaughter as Ivory icons are gifted between heads of state, including Popes and Presidents. This is a centuries-old trade that continues unabated today. Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, Taoist leaders and Hindu believers bless ivory carvings. These blessings add exponentially to the value of these ivory carvings. High-end pieces can sell for up to $500 000. In China, religious motifs are among the most popular expressions of ivory carving. Consumers buy for the dual purpose of investment and the promise of something more divine, good fortune. With less than 400 000 elephants left in the world and an estimated 25,000 killed every year, it is no longer enough to vilify without understanding. Ivory is seen by the religious sector as a divine material as well as a good investment; paying a high price for it is an expression of devotion, one that will be rewarded in kind. By identifying Religion as the CONSUMER KINGPIN of the Ivory trade, we throw open the possibility that the faithful and their leaders can make a difference in the decimation of elephants worldwide. With the Ivory ban now lifted in several countries combined with an Asian economy that is unrecognizably wealthier than 1989, we are in a crucial time. It is now or never for the elephant.

This essay covers the slaughter in Africa, the problems of weak law-enforcement, the smuggling trade, the factories and business of ivory in China, Thailand’s monks and their complicity, the Catholic fervor of the Philippines and the lust of private collectors for ivory carvings of a religious nature. A full essay of this investigation is available from Bryan Christy, the investigative reporter on this essay, a 3-year exercise that is the most all-encompassing essay on the Ivory trade thus far. This story was first published in National Geographic Magazine in October 2012.