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:
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….”
By far the most dangerous threat now facing the African elephant is not poachers or Chinese ivory carvers, it is CITES’ rulemaking. CITES is indispensible to the protection of wildife around the world, but for elephants the high dollar values, insignicant enforcement, and government corruption make the ivory trade unlike nearly any other animal product traded in the world.
As described in this National Geographic blog post, we used narcotics as a surrogate in designing and implementing our Blood Ivory story investigation. Once you see the ivory trade through the prism of illegal drugs, you can understand the absurdity of the way ivory is regulated by CITES, and the danger of proposals now on the table.
The world would never leave policing of the narcotics trade to botanists even though cocaine and heroin are plant products, but we do leave wildlife trafficking to biologists (and economists), and that is a big part of the problem. CITES Secretary General John Scanlon is absolutely correct that we need to employ the same approach to wildlife crime that we do to drug trafficking. That should not be news, but it is.
I hope you had a chance to see last night’s Battle for the Elephants on PBS. If you missed it, there are additional showings planned. Also, I’ve got a collection of the teaser vids here, some of which include some amazing footage that didn’t make the final cut, so it’s a nice supplement anyway. If you haven’t seen the inside of a Chinese ivory carving factory or the inside of Tanzania’s ivory storeroom, you can do it here. Those two shots alone are first-ever windows into the belly of the ivory trade.
To supplement the Blood Ivory story, we created a Blog at National Geographic called A Voice for Elephants (AVFE). It is intended to be a place for the world’s best thinkers and doers to have a place to share their work and thoughts. There are a lot of organizations and websites out there and it’s hard to know where to look for information on the elephant crisis. A goal of AVFE is to bring new ideas to the fore. Drop by and use it as a place to begin your search and to see what’s current from experts around the globe.