In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon's Bouba Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of Elephants - entire families-in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad's Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed.
Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene-you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.
The Philippines connection
In an overfilled church Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines, leads an unusual rite honoring the nation's most important religious icon, the Santo Ni–o de Cebu (Holy Child of Cebu).The ceremony, which he conducts annually on Cebu, is called the Hubo, from a Cebuano word meaning "to undress." Several altar boys work together to disrobe a small wooden statue of Christ dressed as a king, a replica of an icon devotees believe Ferdinand Magellan brought to the island in 1521.
They remove its small crown, red cape, and tiny boots, and strip off its surprisingly layered underwear. Then the monsignor takes the icon, while altar boys conceal it with a little white towel, and dunks it in several barrels of water, creating his church's holy water for the year, to be sold outside. Garcia is a fleshy man with a lazy left eye and bad knees. In the mid-1980s, according to a 2005 report in the Dallas Morning News and a related lawsuit, Garcia, while serving as a priest at St. Dominic's of Los Angeles, California, sexually abused an altar boy in his early teens and was dismissed. Back in the Philippines, he was promoted to monsignor and made chairman of Cebu's Archdiocesan Commission on Worship.
That made him head of protocol for the country's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, a flock of nearly four million people in a country of 75 million Roman Catholics, the world's third largest Catholic population. Garcia is known beyond Cebu. Pope John Paul II blessed his Santo Ni–o during Garcia's visit to the pope's summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in 1990. Recently Garcia helped direct the installation of Cebu's newest archbishop in a cathedral filled with Catholic leaders, including 400 priests and 70 bishops, among them the Vatican's ambassador.
Garcia is so well known that to find his church, the Society of the Angels of Peace, I need only roll down my window and ask, "Monsignor Cris?" to be pointed toward his walled compound. Some Filipinos believe the Santo Ni–o de Cebu is Christ himself. Sixteenth-century Spaniards declared the icon to be miraculous and used it to convert the nation, making this single wooden statue, housed today behind bulletproof glass in Cebu's Basilica Minore del Santo Ni–o, the root from which all Filipino Catholicism has grown. Earlier this year a local priest was asked to resign after allegedly advising his parishioners that the Santo Ni–o and images of the Virgin Mary and other saints were merely statues made of wood and cement.
"If you are not devoted to the Santo Ni–o, you are not a true Filipino," says Father Vicente Lina, Jr. (Father Jay), director of the Diocesan Museum of Malolos. "Every Filipino has a Santo Ni–o, even those living under the bridge."
Each January some two million faithful converge on Cebu to walk for hours in procession with the Santo Ni–o de Cebu. Most carry miniature Santo Ni–o icons made of fiberglass or wood. Many believe that what you invest in devotion to your own icon determines what blessings you will receive in return. For some, then, a fiberglass or wooden icon is not enough. For them, the material of choice is elephant ivory.
I press through the crowd during Garcia's Mass, but instead of standing before him to receive Communion, I kneel. "The body of Christ," Garcia says. "Amen," I reply, and open my mouth. After the service I tell Garcia I'm from National Geographic, and we set a date to talk about the Santo Ni–o. His anteroom is a mini-museum dominated by large, glass-encased religious figures whose heads and hands are made of ivory: There is an ivory Our Lady of the Rosary holding an ivory Jesus in one, a near-life-size ivory Mother of the Good Shepherd seated beside an ivory Jesus in another. Next to Garcia's desk a solid ivory Christ hangs on a cross.
Filipinos generally display two types of ivory santos: either solid carvings or images whose heads and hands, sometimes life-size, are ivory, while the body is wood, providing a base for lavish capes and vestments. Garcia is the leader of a group of prominent Santo Ni–o collectors who display their icons during the Feast of the Santo Ni–o in some of Cebu's best shopping malls and hotels. When they met to discuss formally incorporating their club, an attorney member cried out to the group, "You can pay me in ivory!" I tell Garcia I want to buy an ivory Santo Ni–o in a sleeping position. "Like this," I say, touching a finger to my lower lip. Garcia puts a finger to his lip too.
"Dormido style," he says approvingly. My goal in meeting Garcia is to understand his country's ivory trade and possibly get a lead on who was behind 5.4 tons of illegal ivory seized by customs agents in Manila in 2009, 7.7 tons seized there in 2005, and 6.1 tons bound for the Philippines seized by Taiwan in 2006.
Assuming an average of 22 pounds of ivory per elephant, these seizures represent about 1,745 elephants.According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty organisation that sets international wildlife trade policy, the Philippines is merely a transit country for ivory headed to China. But CITES has limited resources. Until last year it employed just one enforcement officer to police more than 30,000 animal and plant species.
Its assessment of the Philippines doesn't square with what Jose Yuchongco, chief of the Philippine customs police, told a Manila newspaper not long after making a major seizure in 2009: "The Philippines is a favorite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory." On Cebu the link between ivory and the church is so strong that the word for ivory, garing, has a second meaning: "religious statue."
The Catholic-Muslim underground
"Ivory, ivory, ivory," says the saleswoman at the Savelli Gallery on St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. "You didn't expect so much. I can see it in your face." The Vatican has recently demonstrated a commitment to confronting transnational criminal problems, signing agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime. But it has not signed the CITES treaty and so is not subject to the ivory ban. If I buy an ivory crucifix, the saleswoman says, the shop will have it blessed by a Vatican priest and shipped to me.
Although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory's practical uses-billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles-its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists. In 2011 Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible. In 2007 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave an ivory Santo Ni–o to Pope Benedict XVI. For Christmas in 1987 President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan bought an ivory Madonna originally presented to them as a state gift by Pope John Paul II. All these gifts made international headlines. Even Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi, father of the global ivory ban, once gave Pope John Paul II an elephant tusk. Moi would later make a bigger symbolic gesture, setting fire to 13 tons of Kenyan ivory, perhaps the most iconic act in conservation history.
Father Jay is curator of his archdiocese's annual Santo Ni–o exhibition, which celebrates the best of his parishioners' collections and fills a two-storey building outside Manila. The more than 200 displays are drenched in so many fresh flowers and enveloped in such soft "Ave Maria" music that I'm reminded of a funeral as I look at the pale bodies dressed up like tiny kings. Ivory Santo Ni–os wear gold-plated crowns, jewels, and Swarovski crystal necklaces.
Their eyes are hand-painted on glass imported from Germany. Their eyelashes are individual goat hairs. The gold thread in their capes is real, imported from India. The elaborate displays are often owned by families of surprisingly modest means. Devotees have opened bankbooks in the names of their ivory icons. They name them in their wills. "I don't call it extravagant," Father Jay says.
"I call it an offering to God." He surveys the child images, some of which are decorated in lagang, silvery mother of pearl flowers carved from nautilus shells. "When it comes to Santo Ni–o devotion," he says, "too much is not enough. As a priest, I've been praying, 'If all of this stuff is plain stupid, then God, put a stop to this.'" Father Jay points to a Santo Ni–o holding a dove. "Most of the old ivories are heirlooms," he says. "The new ones are from Africa. They come in through the back door." In other words, they're smuggled. "It's like straightening up a crooked line: You buy the ivory, which came from a hazy origin, and you turn it into a spiritual item. See?" he says, with a giggle. His voice lowers to a whisper. "Because it's like buying a stolen item." People should buy new ivory icons, he says, to avoid swindlers who use tea or even Coca-Cola to stain ivory to look antique. "I just tell them to buy the new ones, so the history of an image would start in you." When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philippines, he tells me that Muslims from the southern island of Mindanao smuggle it in. Then, to signal a bribe, he puts two fingers into my shirt pocket. "To the coast guards, for example," he says. "Imagine from Africa to Europe and to the Philippines. How long is that kind of trip by boat?" He puts his fingers in my pocket again. "And you just keep on paying so many people so that it will enter your country."
It's part of one's sacrifice to the Santo Ni–o-smuggling elephant ivory as an act of devotion.
How to smuggle ivory
I had no illusions of linking Monsignor Garcia to any illegal activity, but when I told him I wanted an ivory Santo Ni–o, the man surprised me. "You will have to smuggle it to get it into the US."
"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 gave me the names of his favorite ivory carvers, all in Manila, along with advice on whom to go to for high volume, whose wife overcharges, who doesn't meet deadlines. He gave me phone numbers and locations.
If I wanted to smuggle an icon that was too large to hide in my suitcase, I might get a certificate from the National Museum of the Philippines declaring my image to be antique, or I could get a carver to issue a paper declaring it to be imitation or alter the carving date to before the ivory ban. Whatever I decided to commission, Garcia promised to bless it for me. "Unlike those animal-nut priests who will not bless ivory," he said.
A few families control most of the ivory carving in Manila, moving like termites through massive quantities of tusks. Two of the main dealers are based in the city's religious-supplies district, Tayuman. During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. In almost every shop someone proposed a way I could smuggle ivory to the US. One offered to paint my ivory with removable brown watercolor to resemble wood; another to make identical hand-painted statuettes out of resin to camouflage my ivory baby Jesus. If I was caught, I was told to lie and say "resin" to US Customs. During one visit a dealer said Monsignor Garcia had just called and suggested that since I'd mentioned that my family had a funeral business, I might take her new, 20-pound Santo Ni–o home by hiding it in the bottom of a casket. I said he must have been joking, but she didn't think so.
Priests, balikbayans (Filipinos living overseas), and gay Filipino men are major customers, according to Manila's most prominent ivory dealer. An antique dealer from New York City makes regular buying missions, as does a dealer from Mexico City, gathering up new ivory crucifixes, Madonnas, and baby Jesuses in bulk and smuggling them home in their luggage. Wherever there is a Filipino, I was often reminded, there is an altar to God. And it seems Father Jay was right about a Muslim supply route. Several Manila dealers told me the primary suppliers are Filipino Muslims with connections to Africa. Malaysian Muslims figured into their network too. "Sometimes they bring it in bloody, and it smells bad," one dealer told me, pinching her nose.
Today's ivory trafficking follows ancient trade routes-accelerated by air travel, cell phones, and the Internet.Current photos I'd seen of ivory Coptic crosses on sale beside ivory Islamic prayer beads in Cairo's market now made more sense. Suddenly, recent ivory seizures on Zanzibar, an Islamic island off the coast of Tanzania-for centuries a global hub for trafficking slaves and ivory-seemed especially ominous, a sign that large-scale ivory crime might never go away. At least one shipment had been headed for Malaysia, where several multi-ton seizures were made last year.
The Philippines' ivory market is small compared with, say, China's, but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious. Collectors and dealers share photographs of their ivories on Flickr and Facebook. CITES, as administrator of the 1989 global ivory ban, is the world's official organisation standing between the slaughter of the 1980s-in which Africa is said to have lost half its elephants, more than 600,000 in just those 10 years-and the extermination of the elephant. If CITES has overlooked the Philippines' ivory trade, what else has it missed?
Continues next week (National Geographic Magazine)