In the October 2012 issue of the National Geographic (NG), that quintessential magazine known for its photography, and articles about animals, people, environment, travel and adventure, among other things, there is an article that deals about the Philippines connection in the continuing smuggling of elephant ivory tusks coming from Africa.
The title of the article is “Ivory Worship” and it is written by Bryan Christy who did a remarkable job of gaining access and doing an interview with the right people unbeknownst of the author’s real intention.
In fact Christy was on a mission to know more about why elephants are continuously dying across much of the African continent, with illegal killings by AK-47s and, even, rocket propelled grenades accounting for 90 percent of recorded deaths in central Africa.
Where are the ivory tusks of these slain animals going? What are they being made into?
It will be further noted that 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.
While it is a known fact that the Chinese demand for ivory is what is giving the poachers the incentive to massacre the elephants in Africa, it cannot also be denied that, other from the fact that the Philippines is only a transit country for ivory shipment for China, thousands of elephants also die and their tusks land on Philippines soil so it can be carved into religious objects.
“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,” says a customs police chief.
This is what led to Christy’s meeting with representatives of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, specifically, Monsignor Cristobal Garcia of the Archdiocese of Cebu, whom Christy describes as “one of the best-known ivory collectors in the Philippines.” Garcia happens to be a member of a prominent scion in Cebu that is of Spanish parentage.
After receiving communion from Garcia, Christy later introduced himself as a writer from NG, who wanted to talk about the Santo Niño de Cebu.
Upon their scheduled meeting, Christy noticed that in Garcia’s anteroom was 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.”
According to Christy, his goal in meeting Garcia was to understand the 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.
Christy may not have gotten an answer about these illegal shipments, but on the pretext that he wanted to buy an ivory Santo Niño in a sleeping position, which Garcia described as “Dormido“ style or sleeping style, Christy got to know more about the man and the priest on the course of their conversation.
I had no illusions of linking Monsignor Garcia to any illegal activity, but when I told him I wanted an ivory Santo Niño, the man surprised me. “You will have to smuggle it to get it into the U.S.”
“How?”, Christy asked
“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.”
Indeed, there is more to the Monsignor than meets the eye.
(For a more detailed information about Monsignor Garcia and the article “Ivory Worship”, please go to this link: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/featurehub).