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Demand for ivory Santo Niño icons drives elephant slaughter


(Update 5:08 p.m.) The veneration of the Santo Niño in the Philippines, and the demand for ivory versions of the religious icon, are fueling the slaughter of elephants in Africa, according to a global investigation by National Geographic magazine.  The over 19 tons of ivory that have been seized bound for the Philippines in the last seven years are the equivalent of 1,745 elephants in Africa. Those only represent the ivory that have been intercepted by authorities. Most of the elephant tusks shipped to the Philippines slip through and end up in churches and in private collections. Priests are among the biggest collectors, according to the National Geographic. National Geographic writer Bryan Christy traveled the world following ivory's supply and demand chain. While authorities say the largest market is still China, it is in the Philippines where the trade in statues made of smuggled ivory is most open, and even encouraged by respected Catholic priests in the community.  In particular, Christy spent time with Monsignor Cristobal Garcia of Cebu, described as "one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines," who advised the author how to smuggle an ivory Santo Niño into the United States.  “Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,” he said. “So it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.” Garcia also suggested to the American author, whose family owns a funeral business, that he could hide a large Santo Niño in a casket shipped to the U.S. Another priest Christy interviewed said he urges his parishioners to buy only new ivory icons to avoid fake antique statues. "It’s part of one’s sacrifice to the Santo Niño," Christy writes, "smuggling elephant ivory as an act of devotion." “Ivory Worship,” the cover story of National Geographic's October issue, details the massacre of thousands of elephants for their ivory tusks to satisfy a demand for religious statues in countries like the Philippines. The international trade in ivory has been banned by since 1989 to protect the dwindling herds of elephants worldwide.  Church supports ivory trade ban
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) stated on Wednesday that the church does not condone ivory smuggling and appealed to the public for fairness in judging Monsignor Garcia, who is currently sick in the hospital and has not been available for comment on NatGeo's account of his conversation with its writer. 
 
“Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory (PD, 1979 and CITES, 1990) as it is consistent with her doctrine on stewardship of creation,” CBCP president Jose Palma said in a statement.
 
“While ivory artifacts crafted 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,” he said, adding that "the account given by National Geographic Magazine needs to be assessed as to its veracity, considering that the article smacks of bias against religious practices."
Icons need to be antique In 1981, the Philippines was a signatory to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and among the provisions included was the prohibition of the killing, selling, buying, and collecting of endangered species. According to Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau director Mundita Lim, should Garcia be proven to have bought ivory tusks and had these carved after 1981, he can be charged with the illegal possession of a by-product of an endangered species. “Kailangan i-prove niya na antique lahat 'yun,” Lim said of Garcia and his collection. “Pero kung bago siya, nag-contribute na sa massacre ng elepante.” In October 2005, around 6,000 kilograms of elephant tusks from Africa were intercepted by the Bureau of Customs (BOC). Four years later, in May 2009, two container vans from Africa were again intercepted by the BOC, containing thousands of ivory tusks worth P100 million. According to Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of P300,000 can be imposed on anyone found guilty of possessing products from endangered species. Meanwhile, Malacañang said the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is already conducting an investigation on the matter with the help of the BOC. “The particular unit in the NBI that is doing the investigation is the Environmental and Wildlife Protection Investigation Division, and...depending on the outcome of the NBI probe, the DOJ will be looking at the possible prosecution of those involved after the investigation,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a Palace press briefing. — Gian Geronimo/BM/HS, GMA News
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