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
  • Christina von Nolcken

    This is a wonderfully presented, heartbreaking story. May it help those amazing creatures with their superb intelligence and close affective ties. Thank you, National Geographic, for reminding us so arrestingly of this terrible example of human ignorance and greed.

  • Brenda Szasz

    Many people are petitioning His Holiness Dalai Lama to speak for the plight of elephants,

  • Dr. Rowena Burden

    When a friend of mine posted this article in Facebook, I thought at first that it was just a story of recent incidents of elephant poaching. Imagine my shock, upon reading it, that the lead story was about the smuggling of ivory to make religious items for display and veneration here in Cebu City, the place that I’ve called home for my whole life! That is was, and is being done, in the name of religion by members of the Catholic Church hierarchy makes this atrocity even more galling. Not only is it illegal, it’s highly immoral.
    Elephants have been my favorite animals for the past 30 years. It amazes me that they can be very gentle inspite of their size and that they can form close-knit family units and take very good care of their young, and their old.
    Personally, I took no part in the smuggling of ivory for religious purposes here in my city of Cebu, Philippines. Still, I feel a deep sense of shame for what has been done to the magnificent animals from whom the ivory came from. I’m sure the God whom I believe in would never have condoned the killing of His creatures just so my Catholic Church would have gleaming icons.

  • Dick Slaker

    It’s difficult to read this article and not feel compassion for these beautiful creatures of God. How they can butcher these animals for their ivory is unconceivable and perhaps boycotting might be the next step with regards to tourism.
    Powerful reading

  • Winthrop R Staples III

    Tigers, sharks, rhinos… and now elephants driven toward extinction by superstition, pride and greed! Chinese leaders may be ambivalent about human rights and extinction. But they do care about money, power and “saving face”. We embargoed South Africa for apartheid. Surely we are morally obligated to refuse Made in China products, because of this nation’s continued endangerment of so many species. We must also boycott American corporations that empower this and similar acting regimes. Note to Apple! I’ve burned my iPhone. I will buy a Nokia.

  • Lisandra Lopez

    Even though it is their religion, and the way they worship their God is by using the trunks of this gorgeous elephants, but it is still heart-shedding, that these poor creatures are being hunted down, separated from their family, and killed just for their trunks! And I believe that they should do something about it, and that they should at least put a limit of how much trunks they can get in a month, because it is still their way of living, and their religion. But if someone doesn’t do something about this situation soon the population of these glorious creatures would soon be extinct.

  • Louis Christopher

    The article that mentioned about ivory statues in Cebu is one-sided, biased and lacks in-depth research. I’ve lived for more than 20 years here, have visited every church and every home of a religious icon collector and so far I’ve only seen less than a dozen statues with heads made of ivory that are usually less than the size of an egg.

    So how come this article paints a picture of Cebu as a place where illegal ivory trade is teeming, worst, overflowing?

    • David Braun

      Bryan Christy replies: Religious leaders and high-end collectors maintain private collections which are just that, and so it is not surprising you’ve not seen what actually exists on Cebu. For this story we visited private collections with more than a dozen ivories in a single room, not to mention the time spent in Manila with dealers, collectors and carvers. Ivory is very rarely openly displayed in churches owing to the high risk of theft. Still, the story discusses a number of places on Cebu to see religious ivory openly displayed. Ivory is exhibited on Cebu each January during the Feast of the Santo Nino at such locations as the Ayala Mall and Parkland Mall as well as in some hotels. The story is not intended to paint Cebu as a place where illegal ivory trade is “overflowing” but rather as a place where devotion to the Sto. Nino is deep, and where many people maintain religious images, and some, in the form of ivory. What is legal or illegal depends on the circumstances.

  • Mary K.

    It’s clear that if poaching is to be stopped, much tougher laws are needed. Get rid of all the loopholes, require carbon-dating before a piece of “pre-ban” ivory can be exported, and enforce much stricter penalties for poachers and dealers.

  • Mon Maravilla

    Every old family in the Philippines has an ivory crucifix from their grandparents. Only the rich can afford such images now. I bought a beautiful reproduction made of resin, and it is as sacred as real ivory. I have long wanted to touch base with resin artist to develop this artistry for the Filipino Catholics, who are fond of ivory re3productions.

  • andrew lim

    Thank you very much, Bryan Cristy for this well written and well researched article.

    Though Im pretty sure the Catholic church is not involved in the illegal ivory trade organizationally, those two priests as well as others involved really need to be investigated and prosecuted if warranted. This is disgusting and can never be justified.

    There’s an ongoing hot debate on the Reproductive Health bill, and I’m predicting some nuts will try to link this article and paint it as part of a conspiracy to discredit the church.

    Obviously, it has nothing to do with it, and National Geographic’s cause has been wildlife conservation ever since.

    I just can’t stomach Monsignor Garcia’s ideas on how to smuggle in ivory statues into the US. Can he be defrocked for this?

  • jay

    very disturbing article to say the least… topped off by the fact that a name of one of the most prominent catholic priest in Cebu is implicated. i dont know which is worse… that fact that monsignor garcia is a perv involved child molestation or of the fact that he talked about smuggling ways and practices as if it was just routine for him like a seasoned pro…. im filipino… was raised catholic … but i was fuming mad after reading the article.. the hypocrisy never ends.

  • Lance Kevin C. Quinto

    I thought that Bryan Christy done nothing wrong in this time because he only finds an inquiry of the alleged smuggling of ivory in other countries, just like here on the Philippines but it doesn’t mean that our country is also a producer of this smuggled ivory. I thought that our country is pro-life that even animals like elephants are faithfully respected because this is one creation of God the Father and being the creation we are responsible for them. So Msgr. Cristobal must not be blamed over, not only because he possesses the those ivory stuffs, but he doesn’t totally order to poached the elephants and he is one of the beloved consumer of it as he is devoted since when he was a child in the holy figures like Santo Nino that is blessed. So int the other side, he is not imputable in this wrong doings. Maybe the main leader should be punished by law because they let this happen and Msgr. is only an innocent victim here that he don’t know where this came from. I hope that Msgr. possessed this before 1981 so that he shouldn’t be punished.

  • alan lucilo

    how come that monsignor is innocent? so it’s ok to buy stolen i phone? poachers slaughter elephants. thieves kill their victims at times.

  • eric

    I was very furious upon knowing this especially when I read the article on how our pseudo priest react as if it was normal or legal in supporting ivory trade. I think they have forgotten the value of mankind that everything has the right to live no matter how low they in the taxa. This priest even know all the techniques on how to transport these poor animals precious tusks. I was also sad to note that this people who advocate peace,love,equality and so on does not implement them in their own lives. They thought having to many ivory icons make them more saint and blessed. Hypocrite! Have they not thought about it that participating in this trade only worsens the problem?Taking the life of these gentle animals is like killing a man and taking out his teeth or eyes as a trophy in slaying him. This poor priests does not know anything about the web of life that acknowledge all biological species as part of this web and taking down or removal of one strand can affect the whole system.
    And now,here comes Garcia’s acting stint. Hiding from the public and pretending he was sick.Making many excuses so as to get the support of many ignorant people who believe in his belief of killing elephants to make beautiful idols to worship. Bloody priest.

  • Dino Eleazar

    Very great investigation on the ivory trade especially how it is being smuggled to the Philippines. I think there is nothing wrong with what the people are doing in collecting those ivory-made religious icons. The problem is in the Philippine Government. Though, several confiscations had already been made in the past few years by the Customs. Still, this is a wake up call to the Philippine Customs to be serious about all that being brought inside the country. The ivory carvers will continue to make icons if raw materials are there. The Philippines should stop this.

  • Ryan

    I found Bryan Christy’s article on Ivory Worship to be deplorable and anti-Catholic (a trait that’s become ubiquitous in the media). The article clearly states the main purchaser of illegal ivory is China (but for some reason Hong Kong and Taiwan are separate even though China consider them part of China and the people are ethnic Chinese). So for the article to primarily target Filipino Catholics is beyond me. Also, the author does a low-blow by bringing up alleged claims of sexual abuse by Monsignor Cristobal Garcia in L.A…..the article itself states he was dismissed of all charges but never uses the term “alleged” and really, it shouldn’t have been mentioned in the first place, it’s completely unrelated to the article and was put there solely to create antagonism between the reader and Garcia and the Filipino Catholic Church. I find the media in general feels it can freely attack Catholicism but yet walks on eggshells around other denominations, particularly Islam. Granted I think the illegal trade of ivory is deplorable but it needs to be dealt with more on a political level. I find the part of the article that brings up Kenya’s stockpiling ivory yet burning 13 tons of (other countries’ illegal ivory) ceased by their customs to be a hypocritical waste of ivory. The ivory could have been sold to China (that’s going to acquire it by some other means anyway) and use the money to help protect the remaining population of elephants by hiring more park rangers, putting up fences, etc. Destroying it only makes it so Kenya’s secret stockpile goes up in value and is a facade to make it look like they really care about their elephants, when they don’t. Although I’m Catholic, I’m not Filipino, nor do I know Monsignor Garcia. I do wish the Vatican would speak out more about not using ivory but you have to consider there are billions of Catholics around the world and every country has its own culture and slightly different beliefs from mainstream Catholicism…..clearly Filipinos value ivory and the statues that are made from it more than other predominantly Catholic countries and that’s a cultural divide that’s not going to be breached any time soon… If the U.S. government can’t stop the illegal drug trade in its borders then to expect the Vatican to control the illegal ivory trade around the world amid billions of followers is a farce, especially when the global laws on the trade of ivory are vague and have loopholes on pre-ban ivory.

  • Ryan

    I wanted to make a suggestion that might help the plight of the elephant. Why don’t African national parks sedate the animals, surgically remove their tusks without harming them, replace them with distinctly marked faux tusks so they’re not attacked by poachers, then sell the ivory to help fund this and to further protect the elephant species? It seems like a simple solution to me. It’ll also devalue ivory by swamping the market and may cause those involved in the illegal trade to call it quits.

  • Jane Fisher

    Thank you Bryan Christy and National Geographic for shedding light on this incredibly senseless (and illegal) killing of one of the most intelligent, gentle and social animals, all in the name of owning an object. Elephants deserve better.

  • Mari

    I feel for what is happening to the elephant population, very much so. As a long time National Geographic reader, it struck me as unnecessary and revolting to pinpoint the Catholic Church in such a manner. It was difficult to finish the rest of the article after Mr. Christy describes kneeling in front of Monsignor Garcia before taking the Eucharist right before he accuses him of child molestation? What was the purpose of this? The story was one sided and upsetting. Bringing in John Paul II into it was just the cherry on top. It completely took away from the victims of the story, the elephans.

  • Heather Bayler

    I am conducting a recommendation report to follow my proposal and progress report on Ivory Worship and combating ivory trade. CITES, the (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) is proposing to re-legalize ivory trade (with restrictions), but I personally do not think the legalization of ivory trade will help because it will make it easier for poachers to sell their product and give them a sure market.

  • Jerick Alenton

    Why is the video using a Crucifix carved in the 18th or 19th century?

  • LAMINI Petra von Zezschwitz

    For the Good of All Beings

  • Toby Hoffman

    Only solution is to imprison ALL who possess ivory – with reward $$ to whistleblower and apprehender. Im starting an organization to do this from the top down (think total 180 degree change in China government and Asian Culture leaders) called earthgood.

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