Last week I went on CNN’s Amanpour with the heroic Christiane Amanpour to discuss the ivory trade, the documentary Battle for the Elephants directed by John Heminway, and Ivory Worship. Here’s the interview:
Getty Images Reportage has just released this amazing new video telling the elephant ivory trafficking story as encountered by photographer Brent Stirton and me during our National Geographic investigation of the ivory trade.
Here for the first time you can see just how deeply religion and ivory are bound together. For me, the discovery of religion as a driver of the international ivory trade was shocking. Religious followers in key countries are fueling the killing of elephants and the humans who protect them. This story is also shocking because it implicitly exposes just how poor law enforcement has been when it comes to the international ivory trade, among the world’s best policed categories of illegal wildlife trade. The illegal ivory trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, and not one true international kingpin has ever been identified. Not one, not ever.
Religion is a consumer kingpin but its criminal leaders remain faceless, as do the leaders in China and Africa who run the broader illegal ivory trade. Exposing religion as one common driver opens a hopeful possibility that change can happen, but it will take leadership.
Lot’s of people are writing me depressed about the state of affairs for wildlife in Africa, especially after CITES COP16. I don’t know about you but when I get down about widespread incompetence, lack of political will, and detective work any elementary school kid with a MacBook Pro could outperform, I sit back and relax with old organized crime stories. Here’s a classic that always makes me smile….
On a day when the world is learning that yet again a massive slaughter of elephants has taken place, this time of 89 elephants in Chad, many of which aborted upon being shot, I am struck by this video from ABC news which takes us inside the Vatican Pope Francis now calls home. At minute 1.15 we see what appears to be an ivory crucifix on the desk of Pope Benedict and at 1:53 we see two large elephant tusks on the back wall of a conference room. What is the message to those who share this space? Spiritual leaders have begun to recognize the cost in human lives and morals of the ivory trade. Three weeks ago I did an interview on the ivory trade with Vatican Radio. That show has yet to air. It is insignificant, however, next to the possibility of a leader who need ask no deeper question than this: What would St. Francis do?
“I have never heard or even read a word that would encourage the use of ivory for devotional objects,” Vatican spokesman Fr. Lombardi wrote National Geographic after letters from readers of Ivory Worship poured in to it. When it comes to religion it is the seen as well as the read, the believed as well as the heard, that makes all the difference for life.
Father Lombardi also said this: “I believe that the most important and most urgent action is that of raising the awareness of the Christian communities in the countries affected by the most serious phenomena so that they might act together with those in charge and with the other members of the civil communities in which they live in order to deal decisively with these very serious problems. This must be done, if possible, in collaboration between the followers of different Christian confessions or other religions. In fact, it is a serious problem that Christians can and should unite against….”
If you missed Battle for the Elephants, the National Geographic investigation into the ivory trade in East Africa and the ivory carving industry in China, you can still watch it, for a limited time, below. Also, here’s a link to some very cool director’s out takes.