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Wildlife Watch

Pope Francis Pushes For Crackdown on Ivory Trafficking

There’s a moral imperative to end the illegal trade in natural resources, the Pope says.

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During his visit to Kenya in November, Pope Francis spoke out against the illegal ivory trade.


Ivory trafficking fuels political instability and terrorism, Pope Francis said on November 26 in Kenya. During his landmark trip to Africa, he is urging action against trafficking in ivory, diamonds, and other natural resources.

"Illegal trade in diamonds and precious stones, rare metals or those of great strategic value, wood, biological material and animal products, such as ivory trafficking and the related killing of elephants, fuels political instability, organised crime and terrorism," he said in a speech at the United Nations office in Nairobi, Kenya. "We cannot be silent about forms of illegal trafficking which arise in situations of poverty."

Poachers kill some 30,000 elephants each year to feed the demand for ivory, and there is growing pressure for the United Nations to create a “conflict ivory” classification in the same vein as conflict diamonds because of the links between the illicit ivory trade and terrorism.

Pope Francis has made nature godly, to be worshiped and protected.
Paula Kahumbu Executive director, WildlifeDirect

While much of the demand for ivory comes from China, Catholics, in countries such as the Philippines, also contribute. In 2012, the National Geographic investigation Ivory Worship revealed the extent to which religious purposes, primarily for Catholicism and Buddhism, feed the demand for ivory.

“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,” Bryan Christy, the lead correspondent for National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, wrote in 2012. He found that in the Philippines, Catholics possess religious figures carved from ivory as a way to show their devotion to saints. In almost every ivory shop Christy visited in the Philippines, someone proposed a way he could smuggle ivory to the U.S. In a Vatican City ivory shop, a saleswoman offered to have ivory blessed by a Vatican priest before shipping it to him.

Vatican City has not signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), so it is not subject to the ivory ban, which was implemented in 1989.

National Geographic began corresponding with the Vatican during the Ivory Worship investigation. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, responded with a letter explaining the Church’s doctrine—that animals, especially those that can feel pleasure and pain, “merit respectful treatment”— and committing to raise awareness about the issue. But real action was slow, hampered no doubt by the departure of Pope Benedict.

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The desire for religious carvings has contributed to demand for ivory. Here, the largest ivory crucifix in the Philippines hangs in a museum in Manila.


Earlier this month, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, called upon Filipino clergy to refuse gifts made of ivory and to stop the practice of blessing ivory religious icons.

“We’ve come a long way,” Christy said of Pope Francis's statement. “When Ivory Worship first appeared, a prominent Filipino cardinal suggested I be declared persona non grata and banned from the Philippines. Now Pope Francis has joined China’s President Xi and President Obama in calling for an end to the ivory trade, recognizing its cost in human blood as well as elephants.”  

Pope Francis’s speech in Kenya this week brings the issue full-circle. It reiterates the Church’s position, which was made clear in a scathing encyclical in June, that protecting the Earth is a moral imperative.

“This patrimony of Africa and of all mankind is constantly exposed to the risk of destruction caused by human selfishness of every type,” Pope Francis said in Kenya this week. “This situation too is a cry rising up from humanity and the Earth itself, one which needs to be heard by the international community.”

Paula Kahumbu, a conservationist in Kenya and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, says the pope’s statement elevates the importance of combating poaching and ivory trafficking.

“Most countries and companies view nature as in the way of development, or a ‘nice to have,’” she said. “The Pope is saying wildlife is sacrosanct, to be protected as part of our religious duty. He has made nature godly, to be worshiped and protected.”

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.

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