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:, copying Ms. Cristina Ravenda:

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



Meet the Author
Oliver Payne is articles editor at National Geographic.