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Ivory figures still seen on display in PHL despite decades-old ban

March 31, 2013 3:04pm
Two newly sculptured ivory figures were seen on display at Glorietta shopping mall in the Philippines on Sunday, despite a ban on international trade in ivory since 1989.

"The two ivory figures are new, on display in a shopping mall and costs several hundred thousand each," said John Silva, who took photos of the ivory figures and shared them online.

"For Easter, make a pledge to inform everyone not to buy ivory statues. We can still keep our devotion without killing elephants," he said on Facebook.

"Elephants are on the brink of extinction because we are one of the highest importers of illegal smuggled ivory," said Silva, a former senior consultant to the National Museum and an arts and heritage conservation advocate.

He said the Philippines had the sixth largest number of confiscated illegal ivory among 10 countries surveyed in Asia. "Number one is China. Every tusk is worth 6,000 US dollars."

Elephant poaching in 2012 was the worst in a decade, and recorded ivory seizures were at the highest levels since 1989, according to a report published by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In the Philippines, some 900 kilos ivory from Kenya were confiscated by the Bureau of Customs at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in 2005, according to a report on Brigada in 2012.

Meanwhile, two container vans of elephant tusks worth P100 million were discovered by authorities in 2009, the report also said.

The Philippines, which has been a CITES member since 1981, was one of the territories identified as key transit points for illegal ivory consignments exported from Africa, according to seizure data from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS).

"Seizures of large ivory consignments in Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam since 2009, were believed to be in transit to China and Thailand," CITES said in a 2012 report.

Ivory from African elephants are preferred by Filipino sculptors. "These are whiter and glossier than those from Asia," ivory sculptor Cornelio Awa said in a 2009 report.

"Elephant ivory is a booming black-market commodity not only in the Philippines, but also in many parts of Asia. It has been used to make mahjong tiles, billiards balls, piano keys, jewelry, and trinkets," the report said.

Silva said seeing ivory figures on display in the Philippines is common, despite a standing ban on these items. "There is a demand that's why they can be expensive and that there are buyers," he said.

When it comes to religious items, Silva stressed that people do not bother to find out about the material used.

"Since these statues or faces and hands are religious then most people don't question or care what material they are made of. That's why it's important to drive the point that our religiosity kills elephants but that we can buy other statues without ivory content," he said.

In 2012, Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines president and Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said the Catholic Church supports the ban on the ivory trade “as it is consistent with her doctrine on stewardship of creation.”

Palma said this in response to allegations against Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, who was allegedly involved in the illegal ivory trade.

In October 2012, a National Geographic Magazine article "Ivory Worship" called Garcia "one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines."

From 1996 to 2009, there were eight ivory confiscations in the Philippines, according to records of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (DENR-PAWB), the Philippines' CITES Management Authority for terrestrial species.

"These confiscations involved a total of 12,780 kilograms of Elephant tusks/ivory. All the confiscated items were declared to have originated from African countries such as Kenya, Libya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia," PAWB said in its report on the Philippines' controls of trade in ivory.

The report, issued in February 2013, included measures to control domestic ivory trade, such as collaboration between the DENR and key law enforcement agencies; deputized Wildlife Law Enforcement Officers; Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Units; the development and production of the Wildlife Law Enforcement Manual of Operation; and a continuous information, education and communication campaign.

The report was issued following the 62th CITES Standing Committee's recommendations that all Parties should report outstanding data on seizures of elephant specimens.

In its report, PAWB also said that the DENR had teamed up with the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila and Cebu to conduct an in-depth investigation in regard to the National Geographic article.

"The joint DENR-NBI team had closely monitored the alleged involvement of certain Catholic priests and private individuals in the smuggling of ivory and/or use of smuggled ivory in the production of religious icons. To date, the team had already gathered vital leads, which are the focus of the on-going investigation," PAWB said.

The Philippines, along with China, Kenya, Malaysia, Thailand, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Vietnam, is expected to submit its national ivory action plan by May 15 this year. — LBG, GMA News

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