Philippines noted for trade in Santo Niño statues made from illegally-traded elephant tusks

The Philippines has reportedly been identified in a National Geographic report as a major destination and market for ivory illegally exported from Africa. Elephants are classified as endangered animals and trade in any product made from them — such as ivory from their tusks — is illegal. The Philippines in 1981 became a signatory to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The convention was opened for signature in 1973, and CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants.

The National Geographic report specifically pointed to the use of ivory for the production of prized religious icons that had come to be owned by the Roman Catholic Church and shipped overseas to Filipino communities abroad…

The report, researched and written over a three year period, looked at supply and demand the elephant ivory market. It found that substantial quantities of ivory is being used to make religious trinkets including “ivory baby Jesuses and saints for Catholics in the Philippines, Islamic prayer beads for Muslims and Coptic crosses for Christians in Egypt, amulets and carvings for Buddhists in Thailand, and in China—the world’s biggest ivory-consumer country—elaborate Buddhist and Taoist carvings for investors,” according to a post on National Geographic News.

The report also specifically named Cebu-based Catholic priest Monsignor Cristobal Garcia who supposedly is “one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines.” Garcia even gave advise on how to illegally bring an ivory product into the United States…

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“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,” he said. “So it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.”

Garcia also suggested to the American author, whose family owns a funeral business, that he could hide a large Santo Niño [statue of the “holy child”] in a casket shipped to the U.S.

The people of the Philippine province of Cebu are particularly noted for their devotion to the Santo Niño. Although not officially recognised by the Catholic Church, many Cebuanos consider the Santo Niño their “patron saint”. The Santo Niño de Cebú (“Holy Child of Cebu”), a statue thought to date back to 1521 is considered to be the oldest religious artifact in the Philippines. According to the National Geographic report, most illegally imported elephant tusks are traded openly in the Philippines and even “encouraged by respected Catholic priests in the community.”

DNA sampling from ivory seized in Hong Kong in 2006 and in Singapore in 2002 Asia have enabled investigators to piece together an elaborate supply chain from herding areas across Africa through factories and transshipment points in Cameroon and Malawi. A study published in the journal Conservation Biology conducted by Samuel Wasser, a conservation geneticist at the University of Washington, Seattle revealed the details of this appalling trade.

They found that the Singapore and Malawi shipments came from savanna elephants in Zambia. The Hong Kong-Cameroon ivory, on the other hand, came from forest elephants along the border between Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville.

Documents from the Malawi factory indicate that it had made some 19 similar shipments over the preceding 3 years, says Wasser. If each had been about the same size–5.5 metric tons in weight–then some 17,000 adult elephants in total were killed, he estimates. His analysis for the Hong Kong-Cameroon shipments suggests that 5500 elephants were poached. Wasser says the soaring price for ivory–now worth as much as $850 per kilo wholesale–is fueling this round of killing, which he argues is worse than that of the 1980s.

[Photo courtesy]

The Chinese are the world’s biggest buyers and end-consumers of poached ivory with traders operating on the African continent itself. The Chinese, for their part, value ivory carvings as status symbols and the demand for such products increase as the ranks of China’s new rich swell. Vanity Fair reports that ninety percent of people arrested for illegal possession of ivory at the international airport in Nairobi, Kenya are Chinese nationals…

There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound.

The slaughter of elephants for their valuable ivory tusks also reportedly funds many brutal conflicts, perpetrated by rebels and warlords in Africa. According to a blog post on the New York Times in early September, ivory has taken its place along with “blood diamonds” as an African “conflict resource”.

[NB: Parts of this article were lifted off article “CITES” and used in accordance with that site’s Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License consistent with the same license applied by Get Real Post to its content. Photo of ivory Sto Niño courtesy]

11 Replies to “Philippines noted for trade in Santo Niño statues made from illegally-traded elephant tusks”


      1. the boots i did buy were philippine cobra,p10,000.00 custom made to fit my feet.guy was really proud of them too,they look sharp as a tack.i wonder if he knows/cares they are endangered?right in metro-manila too.
        one thing i wont stop doing is buying leather shoes/jackets,eating burgers because some guy thinks a cow is his momma.but if an animal is an endangered listee,i wont buy it anymore.

  2. The lucrative business of ivory continues to this day despite it being illegal. Why? Because profits are very high and money talks.The culture of corruption in this part of the world is still very much around. Everyone wants a piece of the action.It is a vicious cycle that begins with the poachers, the smugglers, the bribers and the bribed, the craftsmen, the shop operators and finally the buyers. Yes, elephants are dying because of avarice. The sad part is that some of our religious are feeding the cycle. The solution? Only a strong political will combined with strict implementation of state policies and a communication plan to educate the people can save the elephants from total extinction.

  3. I am a Catholic myself but sadly I just do not see the sincerity of the Church in supporting this dusting initiative. My suggestions:
    – Priests should not bless new images with ivory material (or any finish that mimics ivory);
    – Old ivory pieces (e.g. La Naval image, Manaoag image, etc) should not be displayed publicly but remain in the vaults, museum or prayer rooms). Faithful replicas made of wood can be displayed instead.

    And for the government:
    -Criminalize possession of new ivory pieces.

  4. I remember having this group of large ivory images in a big glass case at my house early on. It was a scene of the crucifixion, Jesus on the cross with Mary and John. We sold it in the early 1990s since my family needed money for my dad’s operation. It’s in the possession of some collector, though it was displayed in the Ayala Museum one time. Anyway, my family had it since the 1960s, before I was born and before the laws banning ivory were passed.

    1. Chino,

      Question: Did you lose an Elefant or Panther tank to me? Just posing it, in case you might be *the* ChinoF I know and love.

  5. With all the golds and precious stones adorning the priests wardrobe and altar, one wonders how they were acquired. Could there be more of these precious metals, gems and yes ivories hidden in the sacristy and and in some private vaults of some agents of God?

  6. Benign0:

    “25,000 elephants killed last year.” — National Geographic cover page

    But read this Animal Slaughter Statistics at

    “The number of animals slaughtered in the US comprise only a portion of the total number that die here, as many do not reach the slaughterhouse. Neither do they include animals slaughtered abroad and then shipped to the US, even as they do include those slaughtered here for sale abroad. Nevertheless, they provide a picture of the slaughter industry in this country. The 2010 slaughter included:

    23,627,000 ducks
    35,330,800 cattle
    110,367,000 pigs
    242,619,000 turkeys
    8,790,478,000 chickens
    7.3 billion fish
    12 billion shellfish

    “These add up to 29 billion animals slaughtered for food in the US in 2010 …”

    And this data, of course, does not include those slaughtered elsewhere worldwide during bullfighting, cockfighting and dog fighting — activities banned in the United States.

  7. During our investigation of the e-trade of elephant ivory in 2009-2010, Campaigns Against the Cruelty to Animals (CATCA), found and exposed this ivory trade in the form of religious carvings from Philipines when doing our research in Latin America. It was quite a shocking surprise to discover that all the Catholic ivory came from that country (old and new). For more information,check our report that we distributed at the CITES CoP in march 2010:

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