Elephant remains in Cameroon, where more than 300 were killed by poachers, armed with grenades and AK-47s. Photo: Brent Stirton/ National Geographic
Despite a long-time ban on the international trade of ivory, a thriving black market still exists as the demand for the precious material only increases among some religious groups. In fact, religion is one of the biggest drivers of the industry, according to a cover story by Bryan Christy in the October issue of National Geographic, which found that elephant killings are at the highest levels in decades.
Christy reports that ivory is flowing heavily through back channels out of Africa and into countries like the Philippines and China, where it is carved into artifacts like crucifixes, statues of the Virgin Mary and miniature Buddhas.
The tiny ivory statues are an integral part of worship for Roman Catholics in the Philippines and Buddhists in Thailand and China, who believe the objects will bring them blessings. And priests and monks often actively encourage the illegal smuggling of the ivory into their countries, believing that their religious purpose trumps the means by which it is obtained.
Ivory, which is derived from the tusks of elephants and other animals, has been used for centuries to make products like billiard balls and piano keys. But its use in North America and Europe has declined with the availability of new alternatives, such as plastic and synthetic ivory.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned ivory trading in 1989, but the agency has been unable to properly enforce the ban, Christy reports.
Kruba Dharmamuni, aka the Elephant Monk, keeps Asian elephants at his temple in Thailand. Photo: Brent Stirton/ National Geographic
Loopholes in some countries’ regulations complicate the situation. In the Philippines, for example, ‘pre-ban’ ivory is legal, but without inventory records before the ban, anyone can claim their ivory is an antique. And in Thailand, vendors mix in ivory from Africa with Asian ivory, which is legal in some cases.
It’s impossible to tell how many elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa, but a very conservative estimate from CITES is that poachers slaughtered at least 25,000 elephants in 2011, Christy reports.
Meanwhile, the ivory demand has also led to the widespread massacre of elephants in Asia. The New York Times reports that in Vietnam, poachers and farmers have reduced the elephant population to just dozens.
October cover. Photo: National Geographic.