Vatican Stand on Religious Use of Ivory Would Help Slow Illegal Killings of Elephants

The religious use of ivory is among the least publicized and seemingly most easily correctable drivers of the massive elephant slaughter now taking place across Africa. Only last week, scandal erupted in Sri Lanka over the proposed delivery of seized ivory to a Buddhist monastery.

As described in Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic, Catholics in such countries as the Philippines and Italy are consumers of ivory, too.

Many may see this as a terrible revelation, but new awareness resulting from Christy’s reporting presents a rare opportunity to solve part of the ivory crime problem. With this in mind, last September I wrote to Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, in the hope that the Vatican would take a leadership role regarding the use of ivory by Catholics. Certainly, use of illegally obtained ivory needs to be condemned, but the Vatican might also recognize the harmful effect public giving of legal ivory as diplomatic gifts to heads of state and others has in fueling illegal trade among followers.

On September 11, 2012, before the release of Christy’s story, I emailed this first letter to Father Lombardi:

“We are writing to inquire about the Vatican’s position on the use of elephant ivory for devotional icons, and we urge your reply by noon Vatican time on Wednesday, September 12.

As you may know, the National Geographic Society has long supported scientists and ecologists working to understand the biology of African elephants and secure their future wellbeing. You may also be aware that at the ongoing 2012 meeting of the World Conservation Congress in South Korea, urgent measures are being discussed to stop the slaughter of African elephants for their ivory. The illegal killing—butchering—of elephants is currently at its highest level in a decade. This disturbing trend is also the subject of a series of articles launched last week by the New York Times.

Ivory, new and old, is still widely used by Roman Catholics for devotional purposes and as a symbolic gift between heads of state and other high officials. Last year, for instance, Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible.

Under the Seventh Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2418), it is stated that: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

In light of this, what is the Vatican’s position on the use of carved ivory for devotional purposes, whether that ivory is obtained illegally—and brutally—by poachers or legally from elephants that have died naturally? Does the Vatican consider the use of ivory religious carvings and ecclesiastical gifts to be morally wrong or at odds with Church doctrine?

Vatican City isn’t a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that it is exempt from the international ivory trade ban that went into force in 1990. Nonetheless is the selling of ivory carvings in shops on St. Peter’s Square a cause of concern for the Church, especially given the deep crisis now facing African elephants?

With many thanks for your timely response.”

The Wait Begins

On September 12, I received a note from the press office saying that Father Lombardi was “very busy for the next Papal Visit to Lebanon but he will try to do a research about your query.”

Fair enough. But then I heard nothing. On November 13, I sent another letter to the Vatican press office, excerpted below:

“Following the publication of Bryan Christy’s story, there has been a great deal of discussion in the public arena condemning the continued use of elephant ivory for religious icons, and pointing out that this is a practice religious leaders everywhere should themselves condemn. Efforts are currently under way by religious and scientific groups to engage religious leaders in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to stop illegal wildlife trafficking, especially in ivory.

The Italian press reported recently (October 31) that the Savelli Gallery on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, which Christy wrote about, was among ivory shops raided by Italy’s Forestry police. The implication that possibly illegal ivory is on sale in a Vatican shop is disturbing. But there are deeper issues that it would seem within the realm of the Church to address, namely that the ivory trade—whether legal or illegal—has opened the door to unprecedented levels of crime in Africa and around the world. New record levels of African elephants are being poached, rangers in the field are being killed (as are poachers), corruption is expanding, and ivory is financing criminal violence in many parts of Africa. Ivory is also lining the pockets of major transnational criminal kingpins, especially in Asia.

As Christy wrote, “The Vatican has recently demonstrated a commitment to confronting transnational criminal problems, signing agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime.”

It would seem that the Vatican could make an important contribution to both humankind and the environment by taking a few important steps, in particular: (1) Declare the use of ivory for religious purposes as no longer acceptable. (2) Call for an immediate halt to all carving and exchange of ivory for religious and commercial purposes. (3) Accede to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

I look forward to Father Lombardi’s response, with sincere thanks.”

Continuing Silence 

On December 4, I again requested a response, advising that, “We intend to publish on the National Geographic Society website this ongoing effort to engage with the Vatican on the subject of ivory. I believe the Church’s response would offer a good opportunity to demonstrate how it anticipates being able to contribute to alleviating the problems identified in Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story.”

Next Steps 

The killing of African elephants isn’t slowing. Rather, it seems to be getting worse by the day. The leaders of religious organizations can help change long-held beliefs that a person’s faith is somehow strengthened through devotional icons made of elephant ivory.

If you would like to express your thoughts, you can write to: Father Federico Lombardi: Lombardi@pressva.va, copying Ms. Cristina Ravenda: Ravenda@pressva.va

Oliver Payne is articles editor at National Geographic. He edited Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story.

Oliver Payne is articles editor at National Geographic.
  • Kari Dougherty

    The article I’ve been waiting for – THANK YOU Mr. Payne.

    With all due respect, Mr. Kennedy, perhaps you aren’t seeing the urgency of the situation. The rate of their decimation is not allowing time for an economic empowerment solution — the orphanages are filling up, the situation is dire, so it is demand for ivory that must be addressed now.

    Because the ivory is used primarily for religious purposes, the obvious place to “start” is with the church. What isn’t clear to me is whether Catholics in these countries (China, The Philippines, etc) are connected culturally to the Vatican, as I’ve been told that their relationship to the Vatican is not what it is in the West. I have no idea whether that is true (do any of you?) but if it is, then what other avenues are there for shining the light on this?

    I would really appreciate feedback. And thank you, Mr. Payne, for posting the email address so that we can write as well.

  • donato85

    Mr Payne,
    if Italy’s Forestry police could enter in the shop and could seize its religious artifacts this means that it was not in Vatican City but in Rome. Italian police could not operate in Vatican City!
    So why do you write about a “Vatican shop”?
    Even reading “Savelli Gallery on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City” could confuse someone as
    In Vatican City there is St. Peter’s Square and not Savelli Gallery! This is an Italian shop that responds to Italian laws. That this shop had illegal ivory will be decided by the Italian court.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for reporting this crisis for public awareness. We need to continue to put pressure to stop selling ivory.

  • Akintunde A.O

    It’s so sad and disheartening that for the love of money and religious materialism we have refused to speak against the needless killings of elephants globally and most especially in Africa and Asia. It is not only the Vatican that should speak publicly against the use of ivory for religious purposes and even personal purposes that might place an expensive monetary value on it so as to deter poachers from killing these elephants needlessly through its consequent serious devaluation of ivory, but governments should also speak publicly by passing bills that will deter people from killing elephants and carvers from carvering ivory without approval within their borders into law. Lastly, mass awareness should be encouraged and practiced by organizations, individuals and governments to enlighten people against the killing of elephants. The responsibility to protect animals from extinction and conserving wildlife rests upon us as the most intellectual and civilized of the inahabitants of planet earth. At the same time I believe the vatican should declare their support of this Godly cause to conserve his creations “all in all” by declaring the use of ivory for religious and personal purposes as ungodly and highly unnecessary.

  • Craig

    So after reading your article and the comments here and then the response from the Vatican press office I’m left wondering if you have any journalist integrity — or any integrity period. Anyone who has been to Rome can tell you that there are no shops in St Peters and you can reference old issues of National Geographic to understand how the Vatican territory works. Did you research that? Apparently not. Instead you went ahead it would seem with your innuendo and encouraged the usual angry half wits above rather than keeping everyone focused on the real issue of what is happening to elephants.

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