“Blood Ivory” in the Philippines

“Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship” is generating keen interest in the Philippines. The country’s ivory trade has been the cover story of the Philippine newspapers this week and is receiving similar attention across the country, especially on the island of Cebu.

Earlier today Jose S. Palma, Archbishop of Cebu, held a press conference, “Ivory Worship and Msgr. Cris Garcia” (see below), in which he reportedly announced that ivory collector Monsignor Garcia had been suspended and stripped of his position in the archdiocese of Cebu on orders of the Vatican. Palma emphasized that this move was not the result of my investigation, which features Garcia, but rather is the result of Garcia’s sexual abuse of minor boys while serving in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s. The case was exposed by Brooks Egerton of the Dallas Morning News as part of that newspaper’s 2005 series, “Runaway Priests: Hiding in Plain Sight.” My story cited the Dallas Morning News story and reiterated Garcia’s past.

“Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory,” Palma says in his written statement for the press today. He then opened the door to an important possibility for elephants and the Africans who risk their lives to protect them: “…in the past ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship…in no way does [the Church] encourage the use of ivory for new implements.”

Will the Church go a step further and disavow the active carving of ivory for religious purposes and the selling and trading of new images by devotees? Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz does exactly that in an interview today with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Cruz calls for a stop to the use of elephant tusks for religious images “because it is contrary to the signs of the times.” There are better materials to use, he says.

This is the uplifting possible outcome of uncovering the role of religion in fueling the ivory trade in the Philippines, Thailand, China, and elsewhere: It is a practice contrary to the times, and it is contrary to basic religious principles, including respect for life.

It is worth emphasizing that the “Blood Ivory” 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 Santo Nino is deep, and where many people maintain religious images, and some have them in the form of ivory. What is legal or illegal depends on the circumstances.

Regrettably Archbishop Palma also says my story “smacks of bias against religious practices.” I spent more than two years working to understand religious practices that influence ivory trade and consumption. On Cebu, this included participating in the 4 a.m. processional walks with Jesus, with Mary, the fluvial procession, the solemn procession, attending numerous masses over two years, and interviewing priests and parishioners.  The story celebrates those aspects that are true to religious belief while distinguishing them from behavior that seem to be something else possibly masquerading as devotion.  While much is being made of smuggling issues raised in the story, the core of the piece is intended to celebrate the diversity of human cultures, including authentic worship by Catholics and others according to their faith.  Yet Ivory Worship also shines a light, appropriately, on the problem of some church leaders condoning ivory trade. In light of the effort I made to tell a story that went beyond mere finger-pointing and which placed veneration of images in historical and cultural context, the archbishop’s criticism of bias seems unwarranted.  It would be more in keeping with religious practices I experienced in the Philippines if the archbishop were to note the work the story has done to expose and correct exploitation of children, animals, and civil society in the Philippines and Africa.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) have launched investigations into the Philippines’ ivory trade.

Archbishop Palma’s Statement


In a statement released to the media and posted on the church-run Veritas Radio website on Wednesday, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Jose Palma, Archbishop of Cebu, said: “Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory as it is consistent with her doctrine on stewardship of creation … The Church does not condone ivory smuggling or other illegal activities, although in the past, ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship. While these ivory artefacts created long before the ban are considered the cultural heritage of the Church, in no way does she encourage the use of ivory for new implements.”
Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist and author who has spent years focused on environmental crimes. A Fulbright Scholar, he attended Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University Graduate School, University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Tokyo Law School. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., including in the Executive Office of the President. Mr. Christy is the author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers. In researching that book, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. His article, "The Kingpin", exposing wildlife trader Anson Wong, appeared in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. Visit his website for updates about his work. Photo by John Heminway
  • Marcelo

    If not of that tangible way to express faith some elephants could still be alive today. Never in the bible commanded man to create something to express one’s faith. There is no tangible or intangible in worshiping the one God, not in the bible. Who is Sto. Nino in the bible anyway? Did Jesus thought to worship the Sto. Nino nonetheless himself? Jesus thought man to worship the one God “who is in heaven!” In the Old Testament God said “thou shall have NO OTHER GODS BESIDE ME!” Is the Sto.Nino and the Creator the same? He should have said that in the Bible! Let us all go back to the basic!

  • Marcelo

    And what are they going to do with the finished product, the product the represents violation of animal rights or of god? Well maybe keep it for tangible way to express love to the Sto Nino God. Wait a minute, Sto is Santo, meaning saint? God is a Saint too? Too many identities too many ivories!

  • Armando Borja Figueroa

    Archbishop Palma’s statements should be commended for clarifying the issue on use of Ivory. But more noteworthy is the practice of idolatry which is not compatible with the teaching of the catholic relegion.

  • BlessedmecRyo

    I feel disgusted as a Filipino reading this article about “Blood Ivory”.

    First, the Bible tells us that we should not have any graven images. God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. No images whatsoever.

    If “liturgical worship” is really necessary for the Catholics, they can use plaster of Paris or maybe clay to create the image of their saints. They should know better that killing an animal is still a sin. How ironic that you would worship an image that was made before an innocent creatures that were killed.

    It is sad that they have to kill all the Elephants and rhinos for their gods. This act shouldn’t be tolerated.

    For me, National Geographic is fair in this issue. I am a Filipino and it is a shame if this accusation is true.

  • Lorenzo-NY

    Mr Christy has written a most important article. I was shocked, saddened and appalled at the numbers of elephants that continue to be slaughtered. And by the way I saw no bias against religion – and I’m a practicing Catholic.
    The Filipino Catholic Church could be a significant force in stopping the illegal trade in ivory, especially in raising the awareness among its people of the gravity of this issue. It is well positioned to use its influence over people to suppress their appetite for ivory. It’s a sin to wantonly slaughter elephants and therefore a sin to participate in commerce in ivory. The Church protests that the affinity for ivory images is not idolatry. No, it is worse in what this lust for ivory is doing to some of nature’s most majestic creatures.
    Unfortunately Archbishop Palma’s letter is a pro forma denunciation of the ivory trade and the pederasty of Monsignor Garcia. He’s covering his backside and simply trying to quiet the media. His suggestion of bias on Mr Christy’s part is a cheap shot. It is typical of the hierarchy’s response to criticism. We’ve seen too much of it in the USA over the past decade or more. Let’s hope that the Filipino press continues its vigilance and expose of the facts in this case. So far their coverage has been admirable.
    As far as Monsignor Cristobal Garcia – the guy is a sleaze. He comes from a mega rich family and obviously has seen himself as “too big to fail.” His family money got him out of Los Angeles ahead of the police. Their influence and resources also seem to have established him in a nice cushy assignment in Cebu. And I’m sure that his parents bought his monsignor’s red belly band. It is shameless.
    And he also founded a religious order for young men! Hello!!!
    The Filipino hierarchy better come clean and recognize their failure to protect society from this known and self proclaimed predator -and smuggler to boot. They knew! They not only gave him “sanctuary”, they promoted him. If I’m wrong, prove it! The Filipino bishops are pathetically mistaken if they think that their protests, pat answers and innuendo of anti Catholic bias will fool the people. Not these days! Just look at what has happened in the US and more poignantly the most Catholic Ireland. This will blow up in their faces if they are not honest.
    If the Filipino Church can come clean, it will be stronger; children will be safer…and so will the elephants.

  • Marcelo

    @Armando Borja Figueroa

    You said “not compatible with the teaching of the catholic relegion”.? But images in form of paintings and curvings are all over the place specially inside these churches. Curved stones, wood and IVORY dressed with gold trimmings. I dont know what you call that. They keep on claiming it is just the tangible way to express faith or worship. They better save trees and use it for better purposes and the sand and cement to build houses for displaced people. I am not against you, that’s is your opinion, I am just reacting to that and I maybe wrong.

  • Dr. Stanley Villacin

    Bryan Christy wrote an article about elephants killed, it’s a good article to raise global awareness, but he should focus there.. In the first paragraph he described the thousands of elephants killed each year, in the second paragraph is the Philippine connection with Mons Cris Garcia at the forefront, first attacking his character with incidents of sexual molestations that happened 3 decades ago, then he describes him as a fleshy man with lazy eyes and weak knees, is this how you describe your sources? Do you have to dwell on the negative, did you ever ask him if this conditions was due to a previous or existing illness? Mons Cris, has an existing Brain Tumor that caused all this deformities including a slight paralysis of his face. Did you know this, or was your intention otherwise, by portraying him as a very bad and criminally inclined person to give credence to your story of him as a participant of ivory smuggling? Did you do your math when you sneakingly described yourself as a Sto. Nino devotee to gain the trust of Mons Cris to open up his collections of religious artifacts to you by trying to estimate the weight of all ivory you found in his possesion? At 22 pounds per tusk according to your report, would the artifact have reached a total of 3 to 4 tusk total? Is this volume significant enough to merit your opinion of rampant smuggling particularly in Cebu? Of the total number of ivory you saw, how many of them are heirlooms? Majority? If not all? It is a collection from childhood after all, even way beyond the molestation happened, worse is if you or any of your affiliates in NG, had a hand in bringing up a long resolved molestation issue to the Vatican to suspend or even expel Mons Cris from his priestly duties? After all this issue reached the Vatican only a few months ago from your October issue? Is this a build up? Would you go this far? Is he a criminal in your eyes? Would a single bad decision you made in your life that you have already repented and regretted make you a horrible person if not criminal? And the smuggling part, using underwear with ketchup? That is a common and long time joke here in Cebu, you even missed an important component of the joke, the mustard to make it really more like shit. You see Mr Christy, you are a very good investigative journalist, next time try to look between the eyes and read the finer points, so you won’t miss what was meant to be joke from facts, before you condemn a person worldwide with your article. What if this happened to you? Will you enjoy it? If we can buy expensive things, why cant we buy an expensive Sto Nino or any other religious icon that would remind us of our God? The God that we turn to especially in our times of need. Although our God does not require this from us, but this is one of our ways to show how much he meant to our lives. And one last thing, if you dont believe in him and hate his ways? Please Don’t take communion from him, communion is a sacrilege, unless of course it is part of your religious disguise to use God for your scheming intentions. If you dont believe in the Catholic Church, we ask you to please give a little respect.

  • Lorenzo-NY

    Dr. Villacin:
    You seem too intelligent to be taken in by Mons Cris. Stop drinking the Kool Aid! If you are a medical doctor you should have more concern and knowledge about victims of sexual abuse. Crimes of three decades ago or more leave scars that last a lifetime…and if you’re a Christian/Catholic a price to be paid i eternity. You are naive, Sir. If you are a physician, familiarize yourself with the contemporary literature. Talk to your patients.
    Mons. Cris admitted that he abused these boys; albeit that he accused them of seducing him and obliging him to provide them with drugs. Are you so naive to accept this lame excuse?
    Mons. Cris would be in jail if his filthy rich family had not whisked him out of the US ahead of the police. Ask yourself why, knowing his “alleged” crime, the Philippine hierarchy accepted him and then lavished monsignor’s robes on him?
    Don’t defend the indefensible. Take a good look at what has happened in North America and Ireland. Let’s hope that the church in the Philippines has enough sense and has taken stock of the contemporary landscape to do the right thing. Protect the children and the elephants too!

  • Lorenzo-NY

    Dr. Villacin:
    Leave the 16th Century and welcome to the 21st!

  • Dr. Rowena Burden

    My father has a 30-year long devotion to the Santo Niño and we hold a 9-day novena here in our house every January. We pray in front of a plaster image of Him. I, and my entire family, will never condone the killing of elephants and the smuggling of ivory just so religious icons can be carved and put atop our altar or anybody elses. I’M SURE THAT GOD HIMSELF WILL BE APPALLED THAT HIS MAGNIFICENT CREATURES ARE BEING KILLED IN HIS NAME.

    As for the child sexual abuse issue, this is what i will say, “THERE CAN NEVER BE ANY JUSTIFICATION FOR THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN, NOT THEN, NOT NOW, NOT EVER!!!

    I have personally looked into the eyes of victims of sexual abuse by the clergy because I know five of them. I have wiped their tears, I have heard and felt their anguish, I have heard them repeatedly say that they just can’t move on. One has even said that he will immediately kill himself if the abuse he has undergone will be made public. The scars are deep, they are seared into the souls of the victims, THEY WILL NEVER HEAL. That’s why, so far, 54 suicides have been directly linked to clerical abuse. Those are the ones that have been investigated already. We don’t know how many more there are. As Catholics, it is our duty to be very vigilant and to expose the perpetrators. We owe that much to the thousands of victims because, after all, didn’t Jesus Christ have a special love for the oppressed?

  • Marcelo

    @ Dr. Stanley Villacin

    You said “why cant we buy an expensive Sto Nino or any other religious icon that would remind us of our God?” Do the faithful really need to buy anything expensive or inexpensive to turn our eyes into? Turn our eyes to what? What image does it represent? The face of God? The article was never intended and attack any church. It is the way people express their belief at the some elephant life, nonetheless the life of people that may have been sacrificed. You also wrote “The God that we turn to especially in our times of need.” and this requires elephant tusk? Can’t we worship God without these representations? The bible does not teach that, any verse to show that icons need to be formed to remind us of God? Is His very own creation, ourselves, the physical being, the food that we eat and water we drink not a creation and manifest His power? The writer will be writing the same thing if it was a druglord doing the same “crime” and this would include where these tusk will be or being used for. It so happened that these were used for tangible worship and Mr. Christy has to write it. No need to judge him for his article.

    Now, do we really need any image to remind us of God? There are so many faith that does not require that. Being a Catholic does not mean we have to tie our hands to something that we know we could get rid off. My question is, is that really the image of Jesus when he was young? He maybe is more handsome and those images could be an insult to him. It is not a “picture” of Jesus, nobody has seen him, it was just a product of an ARTISTIC MIND! It maybe an image of someone not Christian at all. Why curly hair to begin with.

    May the God of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses… and the Father, that Jesus called, forgive us.

  • Marcelo

    The article said “Msgr. Cris Garcia” (see below), in which he reportedly announced that ivory collector Monsignor Garcia had been suspended and stripped of his position in the archdiocese of Cebu on orders of the Vatican. Palma emphasized that this move was not the result of my investigation, which features Garcia, but rather is the result of Garcia’s sexual abuse of minor boys while serving in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s.”

    Now, I am hoping that the ex-priest will be persecuted without the intervention of the Church! Or hopeless? Since I read in another article that the Church is asking for a “fair trial”. Are they telling us that the government, our court is not fair and they have to ask for it? Will people not hear it during Mass that the government was not fair and if resulted to unfavorable decision that they will not elect those whom PNoy will endorse? I am hearing power play by the Church?

    Bryan Christy, you are doing a great job. Its’s hard and I commend you for the courage. They may excommunicate you. Your article is a floodgate to Garcia’s molestation case. Many in Cebu is not aware of that.

  • Marcelo

    @Lorenzo – NY

    You wrote “Unfortunately Archbishop Palma’s letter is a pro forma denunciation of the ivory trade and the pederasty of Monsignor Garcia. He’s covering his backside and simply trying to quiet the media. His suggestion of bias on Mr Christy’s part is a cheap shot. It is typical of the hierarchy’s response to criticism. ”

    Well said! Many are now beginning to realize that. May your number increase!

  • Dr. Stanley Villacin

    Dear Mr. Lorenzo,
    You may have missed the point of my comment,, the article is Blood ivory and the killing of elephants for their tusks. I am with Mr. Christy and with you in spreading awareness to save our elephants. But my point is why raise the issue of child molestation? This happened, yes and I do not condone that, will never will.. But does this have anything to do with elephant killings? We seemed to be blinded by the molestation case in making our judgment, which could be the point of the author in bringing this up, to blur our minds. Mons Cris is even accused of being an ivory collector, when he is not, he collects religious icons whether its ivory, glass or wood. The author should have stuck to the issues and focus on ivory smuggling which according to his report is negligible in the Philippines and rampant in China and Thailand. Maybe then, we could find the solution..

  • Dr. Stanley Villacin

    Dear Mr. Marcelo,
    If you can read again, I have mentioned that our God does not require us to buy expensive icons. We don’t even need icons to pray, but if I had money and need to buy a shoe and a religious icon? I certainly would not choose an expensive shoe and a cheap icon. Whatever I decide, I know that our God does not mind, but my conscience will. This is just my own personal opinion.

  • Lorenzo-NY

    Dear Dr Villacin
    Yes, we are in agreement in regard to the ivory trade. As far as Mons Garcia is concerned, he is involved in the ivory trade. He collects religious articles made from it and according to the article has learned how to get around the customs officials to purchase new, not antique, ivory. He certainly appears to be shameless in his callous attitude toward the protection of this noble creature.
    Why bring up the molestation? It speaks volumes about his character, no matter how many years have passed since those allegations. Garcia is a fugitive from justice in the United States. Unlike the lenient statute of limitations in the Church’s canon law, California law is not so indulgent. If he sets foot in the US he will be arrested. He also admitted to the molestation of minors, shamelessly accusing them of “raping” him and forcing him to supply them with drugs.
    No matter how many years ago these incidents of abuse occurred, the victims will bear these scars for the rest of their lives. Perhaps Mons Cris has moved on. Many victims never do and far too many find the pain too great to go on living. The statistics for suicide are alarming.
    Statistics also show that abusers rarely are guilty of one or two incidents. They most often have a long history of abusing minors, with many victims, most of whom never come forward. Given the man’s own admissions of molestation in the US it is incredible that the Church allowed him to establish a religious order with very young aspirants. I would hope that the Church does a thorough investigation of this community to ensure that none of these young men were seduced and abused. It is more likely that the Church will cover it all up. That was what has been done all over the world. Society is far better served in this matter by the civil authorities.
    Familiarize yourself with the case of Fr Marcial Maciel, founder fo the Legionaires of Christ. The Cristobal Garcia case bears many similarities: overt manifestations of overblown piety, involvement with youth, lust for money and financial abuses. I hope that the Filipino justice system pursues the facts in this case.
    Garcia’s flight from US justice and the allegations were well known by the archbishop of Cebu at the time and by his successor Mons Palma. They too should be prosecuted and would be in Western Europe or N America. We just had a bishop convicted for covering up for a pedophile in Missouri. This will eventually happen in the Philippines as well, and the Church and society will be better off when honesty & truth triumph. The present archbishop in Manila warned the Vatican at an international conference that Asia would be the next arena for a deluge of abuse cases. The Philippines is Asia’s major Catholic nation and the third largest Catholic country.
    The attitude expressed by Archbishop Palma and his diocesan canon lawyer Mons Go are appalling – the very kinds of remarks that the bishops in my country and Western Europe were making until their people and the courts saw through their hollow protests and pious platitudes.
    The Philippine Church has come crashing to a crossroads, just as the US Church did with Cardinal Law. I believe that the Cardinal in Manila was well aware of lay ahead when he warned the Vatican that Asia was next. The Church in my country is still reeling from this crisis and cases continue to come to light. The Church of my ancestors in Ireland is devastated. The Filipino hierarchy could learn a lot from the mistakes made elsewhere, as well as current safeguards. Given the stubbornness of the hierarchy and the pathological culture of clericalism, I am sadly not optimistic. I pray that the Church in the Philippines becomes an exception to the rule of cover-up, denial & deceit.
    I say all this as a practicing Catholic and firm believer. I just don’t believe much in the “system.”

  • howard

    there is no evidence that he participate in that smuggling theory.

  • Vic Cruz

    Why did Christy devote 31 percent of his story on the Philippines? CITES says the Philippines is merely a transit country for ivory headed to China. Christy is aware that the problem in ivory is by the bulk, in tons and not wrapping a piece in old, stinky underwear with ketchup. The meat of that story are the Japan experiment, China’s raising prices and the programs that CITES propagates to curb elephant poaching, which was not given prominence.

  • Dr. Stanley Villacin

    Exactly, very well said Vic…

  • Dr. Stanley Villacin

    I tried to send my reply to a comment, which included a link as to why the investigation was done in the Philippines instead of the major players in the illegal ivory trade most especially the untouchable China. Sent it 4 times but never got posted, why? Are these screened? just wondering :0(

  • Vic Cruz

    Here’s a commentary by Butch del Castillo of Business Mirror.

  • Rommel

    Focusing your investigative report in the Philippines doesn’t make any sense. why can’t you turn your lenses on the widespread killing of elephants in Africa and China. Regarding on reports that we are the transit point of such illegal item check your world map ///// where we are situated. why not stop the smuggling from the source itself. Think twice “thinkers”

  • Clarisse

    Of course it was necessary to write about the excessive religiosity and devotion to these religious icons. It was the one that’s fueling ivory trade in the Philippines and with the demand comes smuggling to satisfy the demand, which in turn fuels the mass murder of elephants for their tusks. Remember, WHEN THE BUYING STOPS, THE KILLING CAN, TOO. That was the whole point. Without this craziness, there will not be any market for the ivory and elephants don’t have to sacrifice themselves and their species will survive.

  • Gabriel

    please have a brief research and UNDERSTANDING first before you comment. Its a shame on you!

    Also, read the bible and understand spiritually, not literally.

    “Sto.” – in spanish means “holy”, “nino” – means child.
    Roman Catholics worship Jesus Christ as one person w/ God the father (read the bible and understand briefly before you comment), in w/c he came down to earth as a human being, thus he experienced being a “child”..

    Anyway, Msgr. Garcia as I’ve researched, is an intellectual priest, in fact, he had many contributions to catholic church in Cebu.

    Now, regarding w/ the interview of this author regarding ivory smuggling in the phils., do you think you will believe that “an ivory wrapped in a dirty underwear w/ a ketchup on it will not be noticed by the airport security? or in the rape case, do you think that a guilty person will immediately answer “yes! but they were the ones who raped me!
    This wise priests answers “foolish questions” in a foolish way also..
    “to stop an illegal activity, kill the source, not the tail”

  • fred garcia

    I applaud Bryan Christy NG investigative report -Blood Ivory. given all the facts & circumstances that the philippines was a stepping stone for chinas greediness for Ivory. I t however implicates so many personalities that should be out of its investigation but nevertheless played a significant roles. namely the Catholic archdiocese who profoundly express love , lust, desire to obtain & attained a piece of ivory images in their personal collection. The Guy from catholic museum in manila said ” I dont see elephant , I saw the lord ! “. How horrible it was to worship part of dead animal life ended by poachers and sucked by immoralled sucker collectors and they called themselves believer, They are worst than pagan. Cris Garcia ex dominican expelled from LA with significant pederasty event was with Cebu archdiocese, is this a joke ?. what moral standard the filipinos practiced as testament to their faith. All the characters & personalities should have sought medical treatment for these maladjustment with truth.The report was comphrehensive that revealed by en large china was the ultimate VILLAIN , but was suppressed in any manner, sad to know that financial gain outweights MORALS

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