Behind National Geographic’s “Ivory Worship” Investigation

Elephants are being illegally killed across Africa at the highest rates in a decade, and the global religious market for ivory is a driving force. “Ivory Worship,” the cover story in the October issue of National Geographic, offers the first in-depth investigation of this untold story.

For a behind-the-scenes perspective on this story, we interviewed Oliver Payne, articles editor for National Geographic magazine and editor of “Ivory Worship.”

Why did National Geographic decide to report this story?

OP: The National Geographic Society has long supported scientists and ecologists seeking to understand the biology of African elephants and secure their future well-being. National Geographic magazine, as the Society’s journal, has always been a leader in reporting on elephants. In September 2008, for instance, we published a major story about the decades-long research and conservation work of zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Kenya’s Samburu Reserve. Elephant poaching levels are now again at crisis levels, so when Bryan Christy proposed an investigation of the illegal ivory trade, it was an easy decision for the magazine to put him right on it.

What made Bryan Christy uniquely qualified to write the story?

OP: Christy is a lawyer by training, and he’s a tough—and charming—guy. It’s a powerful combination for an investigator. He’s spent years developing relationships with key people in the worlds of wildlife trade, conservation, and law enforcement. He’s a meticulous researcher who pores over reams of relevant documents, ferreting out important clues and making connections from those clues. In the field he’s efficient and targeted because he’s so well prepared. That in part explains why he’s able to elicit astonishing revelations from his sources. All these qualities became evident to me working with Christy on his first investigative story for the magazine, “The Kingpin,” about the Malaysian wildlife smuggler Anson Wong, which we published in January 2010.

What countries did Christy visit in the course of his reporting?

OP: When it became clear to Christy that religion plays a significant part in the story of illegal ivory, his reporting shifted from what he’d initially anticipated: identifying ivory kingpins and crime syndicates and following the trail of illegal ivory. His geographical focus shifted accordingly, away from Africa and toward consumer countries, such as the Philippines, where religious uses of ivory are deeply entrenched in the culture. Overall, multiple reporting trips took him to Tanzania, Kenya, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Vatican City, England, China, Qatar, and Geneva, Switzerland.

How long did the investigation take?

OP: Christy spent several months doing pre-research before beginning his field reporting.  In all, the story occupied him full-time for well over two years.

This is the first time a comprehensive, in-depth connection has been made between devotional art and ivory smuggling. What does the Vatican say about the use of ivory in religious art?

OP: Church doctrine states that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” Certainly, elephants are suffering horribly at the hands of poachers. We have asked the Vatican to comment on the religious use of elephant ivory and await a response.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn