The veneration of the Santo Niño in the Philippines, and the demand for ivory versions of the religious icon, are fueling the slaughter of elephants in Africa, according to a global investigation by National Geographic magazine.
The over 19 tons of ivory that have been seized bound for the Philippines in the last seven years are the equivalent of 1,745 elephants in Africa. Those only represent the ivory that have been intercepted by authorities. Most of the elephant tusks shipped to the Philippines slip through and end up in churches and in private collections. Priests are among the biggest collectors, according to the National Geographic.
National Geographic writer Bryan Christy traveled the world following ivory's supply and demand chain. While authorities say the largest market is still China, it is in the Philippines where the trade in statues made of smuggled ivory is most open, and even encouraged by respected Catholic priests in the community.
In particular, Christy spent time with Monsignor Cristobal Garcia of Cebu, described as "one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines," who advised the author how to smuggle an ivory Santo Niño into the United States.
“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,” he said. “So it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.”
Garcia also suggested to the American author, whose family owns a funeral business, that he could hide a large Santo Niño in a casket shipped to the U.S.
Another priest Christy interviewed said he urges his parishioners to buy only new ivory icons to avoid fake antique statues. "It’s part of one’s sacrifice to the Santo Niño," Christy writes, "smuggling elephant ivory as an act of devotion."
“Ivory Worship,” the cover story of National Geographic's October issue, details the massacre of thousands of elephants for their ivory tusks to satisfy a demand for religious statues in countries like the Philippines. The international trade in ivory has been banned by since 1989 to protect the dwindling herds of elephants worldwide.
— Gian Geronimo/BM/HS, GMA News