Philippine Catholic leaders urged to reject ivory

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines' dominant Catholic Church called on its leaders Wednesday, November 4, to help end the slaughter of elephants by rejecting fresh donations of religious objects made of ivory.

"I propose to my brother bishops to enforce the directive that no donation of any new statue or religious object made from ivory...shall be accepted and blessed," said Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines president Socrates Villegas.

The Catholic Church, which counts 80% of the Philippines' 100 million people as followers, has long been a significant consumer and endorser of elephant tusks for use as religious icons.

In 2012 a National Geographic investigation said Philippine Catholic Church ownership of religious icons made from ivory was widespread, and some priests were complicit in smuggling icons carved in Manila abroad.

The Church suspended a priest known for his vast collection of ivory statues following the report, which cited him as giving advice to a journalist on how to smuggle icons to the United States.

In his statement Villegas acknowledged that statues and objects made of ivory, some of them centuries-old, were already in use in some churches.

But he said the Church should keep them.

"[These] should be safeguarded, and may remain in use for purposes of devotion and in recognition of their historical value," he said.

Villegas, making the statement through a pastoral letter to be circulated to churches, said the ivory directive also covered "materials extracted, taken or derived from protected and endangered species."

"No matter the beauty of a work of art, it cannot justify the slaughter of wildlife, the use of endangered organic forms and lending a seal of approval to the threat posed to biodiversity by poachers and traffickers," the pastoral letter reads.

Environment groups regard the Philippines as one of Asia's hotspots for the trade in illegal ivory, partly because it is a transport hub for African tusks to key Asian centres of demand such as China and Vietnam.

The use of the ivory as religious icons is another factor.

The Philippines is among 8 nations of "primary concern" that should do more to stop the poaching of elephants and the illegal trade in ivory, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Rampant poaching of elephants in Africa has caused a major drop in their numbers over recent decades.

There are between 419,000 and 650,000 elephants left, according to conservation group Save the Elephants. –