The poaching of elephants, smuggling of elephant tusks and the illegal trade of ivory worldwide were highlighted in a recent National Geographic article, “Blood Ivory” subtitled “Ivory Worship” written by Bryan Christy.
The story was meant to draw attention to the continuing problem of elephant poaching despite an international accord not to harm these animals. The worldwide protection of elephants is embodied in the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty. Prior to this, harvesting of ivory from African and Asian wildlife was not banned. Decades of elephant poaching have made a possibility the extinction of the species, just like what happened to its relative, the mammoth.
Ironically, the universal pact has upped the value of elephant products like hide and meat. But it is the animal’s tusk, actually teeth protruding from its mouth used for carvings and art images, billiard balls and piano keys that drive people to kill elephants for profit. Elephants are also traded as attractions in zoos and circuses, so it is not surprising to hear they are transported live and made to cross borders despite global interdiction.
Elephant poaching is not just a problem in the African continent, but also in India, Vietnam and Cambodia. Asia has a thriving ivory market, wherein Chinese and Japanese traders battle it out as to who gets the biggest supply at lowest prices.
I’m citing these facts to illustrate that ivory images used in worship by Catholics is hardly a significant factor in the rise of elephant poaching and smuggling of ivory. In the Philippines, government corruption is still at the heart of the problem if we examine how smuggled tusks valued at tens of millions of pesos disappeared from under the noses of Philippine Customs officials in 2005, 2006 and 2009. The illegal supply was reportedly intended for China and Japan, but some unscrupulous businessmen with ties to corrupt authorities were able to get a slice of the illegal shipment.
So why blame Catholic devotees? Catholics with a taste for fine art buying either legal or illegal ivory as undermining CITES is pure hogwash. The Natgeo article is anti-Catholic but tries to obscure its slant under the hide of a wildlife protection drive.
The facts linking Msgr. Cristobal Garcia to ivory smuggling is simply that he is the “best known collector of ivory images in the Philippines.” The article made no mention how many items in the Garcia collection were heirloom, entrusted or donated to his religious congregation by other families, or if the collection had a catalogue showing when the ivory images were bought.
The article carried only anecdotal quotes by Garcia from dealers and carvers who Christy interviewed, but how credible is that? Except for the author’s recollection that Garcia gave him advice how to conceal ivory when passing through Customs check, which would pit his word against that of the monsignor, the facts showing the cleric had transgressed the law on account of his ivory collection amounts to indiscriminate shooting. At the very least, the allegation needs to be evaluated and the basis offered by the Natgeo article, verified.
Christy visited the Philippines five times and during one Sinulog celebration, he asked Garcia for an interview about the Santo Niño icon. The author confessed in the same article that his real purpose was to get leads about ivory smuggling. But he misled Garcia by making him talk about a subject that later led him to show off his religious art collection. That should have prompted the author to ask about ivory smuggling, but curiously, he did not.
Of course, journalists commit lapses, but to deliberately come up with a one-sided story, one that intentionally omits the viewpoint of the accused even if he was available to air his side, is downright unfair. That the subject was deluded so the author could get a glimpse of his religious art collection, and later tie it up with the ivory smuggling story is vicious and cruel.
Notice that Christy also raked up the cleric’s alleged past sexual misconduct, as if this was a factor in ivory smuggling. In other words, even before Mr. Christy met Garcia, he was already boxed as worldly and corrupt.
Now that the government takes up from where the Natgeo story left off, I wonder where this issue will end. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced it does not have equipment to detect when ivory was harvested, so DENR is just going through the motions here. Assuming some images were pure ivory and purchased post 1989, what now? Will the National Bureau of Investigation track down small time carvers in Tayuman, or probe ivory traders in Spain and Italy?
When this issue dies down, only the remains of the day will make us remember the article—for its injurious references to the Cebuano priest but more importantly, to the not-so-subtle mockery laid on a Catholic tradition.