Blood Ivory: Why Elephants Are Being Killed to Make Religious

A lot of atheists tend to support animal rights and the cover story of the latest issue of National Geographic (October, 2012) covers the intersection of both worlds… it’s not pretty.

The story is about how elephants are being slaughtered “so that their tusks can be carved into religious objects.”

Contraband that failed to get past Kenya’s law enforcement agencies (Brent Stirton – National Geographic)

Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah.

Each January some two million faithful converge on Cebu to walk for hours in procession with the Santo Niño de Cebu. Most carry miniature Santo Niño icons made of fiberglass or wood. Many believe that what you invest in devotion to your own icon determines what blessings you will receive in return. For some, then, a fiberglass or wooden icon is not enough. For them, the material of choice is elephant ivory.

Many Thais wear amulets, sometimes dozens, to bring them luck and protect them from harm and black magic. Bangkok’s amulet market is huge, with countless vendors selling tens of thousands of small talismans made of materials such as metal, compressed dust, bone — and ivory. High-end amulets can fetch $100,000 or more. There are magazines, trade shows, books, and websites devoted to amulet collecting. Amulets hang from the rearview mirror of almost every Thai cab. Ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra credits his Buddhist amulet with saving him in assassination attempts, and the Thai Army has distributed amulets to its border soldiers to ward off Cambodia’s black magic.

It’s bad enough that these animals are getting killed for frivolous reasons — that they’re killed in the promotion of religion and superstition just adds insult to injury. It’s not just the fault of one group of believers — hell, Roman Catholics are working with Muslims to facilitate this. Buddhists want the ivory, too.

In an interview, the author of the piece, Bryan Christy, said it’s up to religious leaders to end this practice:

… “the leader[s] of the Catholic Church have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference to the survival of elephants. Few words to them: enough with the religious icons in ivory.”

(Thanks to Anu for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Tainda

    I don’t see how a Buddhist would want something cut from a living being.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=541055353 Mark Whatman

       and Christians or Muslims should?

      • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

        Most sects of the  Christian and Muslim religions do not have any analog of Ahimsa that encompasses non-humans. It’s not universal in Buddhism, though.

        • Tainda

          “It’s not universal in Buddishm”

          Unfortunately.

          I wish it were universally universal

      • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

        It’s not a question of should.  I’m highly suspicious of the statement that a Buddhist would wear ivory as well.  Buddhists tend to be vegetarians.  (It may even be an obligation; I’m not sure.)  If the objects in question were made from pigskin, I’d be very surprised to find Jews and Muslims owning them.

        • Grizzz

          Buddhists are just as full of shit as the muslims and christians. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-OLeary/1313741338 Mark O’Leary

          Vegetarianism is not an obligation for Buddhists. It’s an option. The Dalai Lama is not a vegetarian.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

      I think our view of Buddhism in the west is highly fluffy and sanitized. A few years ago I spent a month traveling in Vietnam outside the standard tourist circle, and I was struck by how Buddhism “on the street,” as it were, doesn’t exactly shine through with serenity and enlightenment. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as the rural latino catholicism I saw growing up in New Mexico. Sophisticated consideration of the lives of animals was only to be found at the pagodas.

      • Tainda

        You have a point

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-OLeary/1313741338 Mark O’Leary

        As an atheist and a Buddhist, I feel qualified to comment here. The average Asian layperson is not a practicing Buddhist. Only monks and nuns actually “do” Buddhism. Or they’re supposed to. The theory is, laypeople support the temples and monasteries in hopes of being reborn in better circumstances in their next lives. Monks are supposed to practice and attain enlightenment. It’s a bullshit system, but it’s their culture, not Buddhism.

        In Asia, what is called Buddhism is mostly just local Asian culture, with little to no relation to actual Buddhist teachings. Western-style Buddhism (or the western view of Asian-style Buddhism) may indeed be called “sanitized,” but only in the sense and to the extent that it has had the cultural overlay stripped off. Buddhism without any cultural modifiers has no gods and no prescriptive morality. But many Asian people believe in gods, demons, ghosts, spirits and what-have-you, and carry in their minds a clear idea that a “good” Buddhist does certain actions and avoids others. These ideas are cultural, not Buddhist. Many varieties of Buddhism are filled with magic and superstition, but that is because those cultures are filled with magic and superstition. This tells you a lot about human beings, but nothing about Buddhism.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bradley.betts.10 Bradley Betts

          “As an atheist and a Buddhist”?

          Oxymoron, anyone?

    • Gus Snarp

      I saw a Buddhist monk in a Waffle House once. He was eating bacon.

    • michael both

      My understanding is that in South-East Asia Theravada Buddhism is the main ‘branch’ of Buddhism practiced, and this branch by it’s nature is more ‘selfish’ is the sole focus is on self-liberation; Mahanyana Buddhism is focused on self-liberation AND assisting the liberation of others. The former would tend towards less care towards living creatures being killed for your own benefit.
      Also, in my experience, superstition often trumps religion in Thailand. Many people believe in ghosts and spirits, and believe that trinkets / flowers / etc act as ‘protection’. Catch a Thai taxi and you will see what I mean. So, again, any trinket that offers protection, even if it’s made out of an animal, will seem like an attractive item to even a practicing Buddhist in the ‘real world’.
      Finally, as a practical matter, I’ve seen monks in Thailand accept meat donations as they go about their daily rounds. Whether they eat it or is another thing, of course, but I would bet they do; beggars, as they say, cannot be choosers. When I was studying Buddhism there was a lot of discussion about eating meat, and – one reason why Buddhism is my ‘favourite’, if you can call it that, out of all religions – the consensus seemed to be that if the animal was killed especially for you, or by you, then that’s a problem; on the other hand, meat found at the supermarket that was going to be there anyway is ok to eat. It all depended on how strictly you wished to observe the Buddhist practices; the underlying message seemed to be ‘well, ok, you can reason that eating meat is ok because of and , so don’t worry ….. BUT … it’ll take longer to achieve nirvana choosing that path’. :)

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    I didn’t even know there *were* 25000 elephants left. And they casually slaughter them for decorations??!! I am so horrified.

  • Grizzz

    A few things here:

    First, I have been over in this region (got back seven months ago and leave again to the region at the end of October) working with a non-prof dedicated to Elephant Herd preservation and research. Now, to be fair, I am not one of the biologists on the research team, I am a pilot – helicopter and fixed wing – that flies the team for aerial herd counts and DNA tranq/removal on the elephants…..oaky, that out of the way it had to be put in here because I have lots of first hand experience with the issues at hand….

    This article is a bit “quasi-true”…..yes, there are rare occasions when ivory is used to carve out religious icons, but this is really a stretch. The majority of the poached ivory (that which is not intercepted) makes it to Asian and Eastern European buyers who use it for a variety of purposes: everything from illegal ivory sales (like a commodity – gold/silver etc) to fake medicinal uses and also to (surprise surprise) North American artists! Yes, that is right, about 10-percent of the “blood ivory” makes it to North American artist studios! This is rarely, if ever talked about. One of the problems with the ivory when it makes it over here is that it gets mixed in with legal fossilized ivory from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska. 

    Now, make no mistake, any poaching is abhorant and disgusting and I am all for the poachers getting filled with hot lead (and let me tell you, some of the anti-poaching rangers are not dudes you want to piss off) but this article is really kind of piss-poor “yellow” journalism

    Anyway, the herds of Botswana are thriving and the Skeleton Coast (Namibia) herds are rebounding exceptionally well. Kenya/Tanzania/Mozambique have their issues but are trying very very hard to stem the tide.

    One crazy thing too is that the confiscated ivory – the ivory taken from illegal poaching and poachers – could be used to stem the tide via LEGAL sales. Now this is not a solution in full, but it would help stem the tide and take away incentive from poachers (if they know their work will get taken by the rangers and they lose money/liberty they are less inclined to try). But, more often than not, thousands of tons of ivory gets burned up and wasted. The money from the confiscated ivory sales would also help pay for training of new rangers, get new equipment for the rangers and help with research (like the non prof I work for) to help elephant herds.

    It should be noted too, that the rhinos are in even worse situations than elephants and that is horrifying to me. Rhinos rock!

    • michael both

      Thanks for the informative reply.


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