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Offline mayya

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From blood diamonds to blood ivory (PartII)
« on: September 23, 2013, 22:22:22 PM »
From blood diamonds to blood ivory (PartII)
August 18, 2013

Thousands of elephants die each year so that their tusks can be carved into religious objects. Can the slaughter be stopped? Some of these elephants and other endangered animals are killed on Zambian soil and this recently led to Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo banning all hunting and that of big cats such as lions for a year. In this weekend’s in-depth, we bring you the second part of a National Geographic Special on the threat and danger African elephants faced.

By BRYAN CHRISTY and Photographs by BRENT STIRTON, as captured on CNN

A few families control most of the ivory carving in Manila, moving like termites through massive quantities of tusks. Two of the main dealers are based in the city’s religious-supplies district, Tayuman. During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. In almost every shop someone proposed a way I could smuggle ivory to the US. One offered to paint my ivory with removable brown watercolor to resemble wood; another to make identical hand-painted statuettes out of resin to camouflage my ivory baby Jesus. If I was caught, I was told to lie and say “resin” to US customs. During one visit a dealer said Monsignor Garcia had just called and suggested that since I’d mentioned that my family had a funeral business, I might take her new, 20-pound Santo Niño home by hiding it in the bottom of a casket. I said he must have been joking, but she didn’t think so.

Priests, balikbayans (Filipinos living overseas), and gay Filipino men are major customers, according to Manila’s most prominent ivory dealer. An antique dealer from New York City makes regular buying missions, as does a dealer from Mexico City, gathering up new ivory crucifixes, Madonnas, and baby Jesuses in bulk and smuggling them home in their luggage. Wherever there is a Filipino, I was often reminded, there is an altar to God.

 And it seems Father Jay was right about a Muslim supply route. Several Manila dealers told me the primary suppliers are Filipino Muslims with connections to Africa. Malaysian Muslims figured into their network too. “Sometimes they bring it in bloody, and it smells bad,” one dealer told me, pinching her nose.

 Today’s ivory trafficking follows ancient trade routes – accelerated by air travel, cell phones, and the Internet. Current photos I’d seen of ivory Coptic crosses on sale beside ivory Islamic prayer beads in Cairo’s market now made more sense. Suddenly, recent ivory seizures on Zanzibar, an Islamic island off the coast of Tanzania – for centuries a global hub for trafficking slaves and ivory – seemed especially ominous, a sign that large-scale ivory crime might never go away. At least one shipment had been headed for Malaysia, where several multi-ton seizures were made last year.
 The Philippines’ ivory market is small compared with, say, China’s, but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious. Collectors and dealers share photographs of their ivories on Flickr and Facebook. CITES, as administrator of the 1989 global ivory ban, is the world’s official organisation standing between the slaughter of the 1980s – in which Africa is said to have lost half its elephants, more than 600,000 in just those ten years – and the extermination of the elephant. If CITES has overlooked the Philippines’ ivory trade, what else has it missed?


The ivory carvers in Phayuha Khiri and Surin are the most famous in Thailand and the targets of most investigations there into the illegal ivory trade. Phayuha Khiri is so dedicated to ivory that in the town center, where one might expect to see a fountain, there’s a circle of four great white tusks. It takes me only minutes on the main street to realise I’ve seen this place before: Tayuman, Manila’s religious-supplies district; only here, instead of crucifixes and images of the holy family, are life-size images of famous monks, small images of the Buddha wrapped in plastic, and bracelets and other religious items bagged by the dozens. Vendor after vendor on both sides of this long street is a Buddhist wholesale outlet. The only people I see shopping during my visits to Phayuha Khiri are small knots of orange-robed monks.

 I track down the village’s head ivory dealer – Mr. Thi, who’s wearing an amulet on an ivory necklace and an ivory belt buckle – tour his shops and carving operation, and also visit his McMansion-size home. Mr Thi tells me that Phayuha Khiri’s carving industry was founded by a monk who liked to carve ivory amulets. Standing in his shop, I look over his shoulder and see a painting of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and beside him a Happy Buddha. Monks, I discover, give out amulets in return for donations. The better the donation, the better the amulet. Amulets blessed by certain monks are even more valuable.

 The Elephant Monk, Kruba Dharmamuni, who used to be the Scorpion Monk and still displays a life-size statue of himself as a scorpion in his temple, wants to take me ivory shopping in Surin. Once upon a time Surin was home to the king of Siam’s royal elephant catchers, but today government-subsidized elephant keepers, mahouts, live a shadow of their old lives, dependent on their animals’ ability to kick a soccer ball or hold a paintbrush and create a “self-portrait” on an easel for tourists. Vendors selling ivory rings, bangles, and amulets line the entrance to Surin’s tourist park.
 “Ivory removes bad spirits,” the Elephant Monk tells me. He wears the brown robes of a forest monk and chews steadily on betel-infused maak, which he spits out in great blood-like wads. He also wears ivory. Around his neck is an ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 108 human passions.
 The elephant is a symbol of Thailand and is revered in Buddhism. According to legend, a six-tusked white elephant entered the right side of Queen Maya the night she became pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama. The Elephant Monk believes he was an elephant in a past life and is well-known among mahouts. He tells me he has 100,000 followers around the world, though during my visit to his temple only a few show up. They kneel before him with offerings and receive an amulet he has blessed.

 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.

 The Elephant Monk’s main income is from amulets, and he offers a strange variety, including images of himself and of the Buddha as well as amulets made with plastic-encased bits of bone from the skulls of dead pregnant women, pure corpse oil, soil from seven cemeteries, tiger fur, elephant skin, and carved ivory. Business is good enough that he’s building a new temple, Wat Suanpah, modeled in part after Thailand’s popular tiger parks – often front organizations, critics say, for the illegal tiger trade. The Elephant Monk suffered similar controversy when a recent television exposé reported that he’d starved an elephant to death for its skin and ivory, but he says it died of natural causes and he was only holding an elephant funeral. Besides, by shopping in Surin, he tells me, he can find all the elephant ivory and skin he needs. Before the exposé, he took in about one million baht ($32,000) a month from his gift shop, the Internet, and foreign travels. Now he’s down to about 300,000 baht a month. But, he says, in just three days in Malaysia or Singapore he could sell his followers one million bahts’ worth or more.

 Thailand has a small, natural population of Asian elephants, an endangered species long off-limits to international trade. Inside Thailand, however, the rules are less rigid. Mahouts and others may sell the tusk tips of live domesticated elephants and the tusks of ones that died of natural causes. For years international ivory traffickers have capitalised on this, smuggling in African ivory to mix with Asian ivory.

 Conservationists refer to this as the “Thai loophole.” But there’s a far bigger loophole enjoyed by every country in the world. African ivory brought into a country before 1989 may be traded domestically. And so anyone caught with ivory invokes a common refrain: “My ivory is pre-ban.” Since no inventory was ever made of global ivory stocks before the ban, and since ivory lasts more or less forever, this “pre-ban” loophole is a timeless defense.
 Thailand’s ivory market has been evolving. “Ivory traders are stockpiling,” says Steve Galster, director of the Freeland Foundation, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization (NGO). “Since CITES has a history of relaxing trade bans, they feel it’s a safe gamble.”

 Thailand, like the Philippines, has another commodity traffickers value: corruption. A ton of seized African ivory disappeared recently from a Thai customs warehouse. When I ask to see the rest, customs officers refuse and suggest that journalists stole it. Only when I say I heard otherwise am I told the truth: Customs officers are believed to have been the culprits. Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for “losing” several tons of seized ivory. Chastened, the customs office turned its next big ivory seizure over to the wildlife department, which soon discovered that its own storeroom had been raided. Piles of tusks had been replaced with exact duplicates made of plastic.

 The Elephant Monk’s favorite carver, Jom, lives on a dirt road in a place so remote that I blink when I realize that the vegetable stands in front of Jom’s house are actually glass jewelry cases filled with ivory Buddhist figurines. On the outside of one case is a bumper sticker bearing the Elephant Monk’s face. Most of the ivory is Thai. “That is African,” the Elephant Monk says, pointing to a piece that’s especially white.
 “If I could get you African ivory,” I ask Jom, “could you carve it?”
 “Dai,” he replies.
 “No problem at all,” his wife agrees.
 And that was all it took to get the Elephant Monk to talk smuggling. He tells me to cut the ivory to fit into my suitcase, holding out his hands to show me how long to make the pieces. That’s what his followers do, he says. When I arrive at the Bangkok airport, his assistant will pick me up and drive me to him. He has followers in immigration, but if anything goes wrong, I should say I’m bringing the ivory to his temple. Religion, apparently, will cover me.
 Because this is about faith, and because faith requires suspension of disbelief, ivory traded for religious purposes doesn’t garner the aggressive scrutiny it might if it were carved into, say, chess pieces. God’s ivory has its own loophole.


Inside the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory it smells and sounds like what it essentially is: a vast dentist’s office. The whir of electric drills on tusks fills the air. Ivory dust lies heavy on windowpanes and doorframes and even coats my teeth as I make my way among men and women bent over images that repeat the religious and mythological motifs I find throughout China, such as Fu, Lu, and Shou, the gods of luck, money, and long life; the Happy Buddha; and Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess and who sometimes holds in her arms a male child, the “giving sons” Guanyin, popular under China’s one-child policy. No matter where I find ivory, religion is close at hand. “Chinese people believe in the concepts these figures represent,” the head of the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory in Guangzhou tells me.

 At the time of the ivory ban, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese consumed 80 percent of the world’s carved ivory. Today in the heart of Beijing, dealerships offering Maseratis, Bentleys, and Ferraris rub shoulders with Gucci and Prada. Nearby is the Beijing Arts and Crafts Emporium, whose first-floor ATM dispenses 24-karat gold bars. Up the escalator, past galleries of jade and silk, the main ivory boutique sparkles like a snow-covered Tiffany’s. One of the first items I notice is a carved ivory Guanyin behind glass with so many zeros on its price tag I have to ask for help – 1,360,000 (about US$215,000).

 By all accounts, China is the world’s greatest villain when it comes to smuggled ivory. In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country. For the first time in generations many Chinese can afford to reach forward into a wealthy future, and they can also afford to look back into their own vibrant past. One of the first places many look is religion.

 “We don’t all only think of money,” Xue Ping corrects me as we sip tea in his Buddhist art gallery inside the Grand Hotel Beijing. During a 2007 pilgrimage retracing the Buddha’s life from Nepal to India, the advertising executive had a vision: The Buddha challenged him to do good with his life. He returned home and in 2009 founded a company he called Da Cheng Bai Yi (transmitting great heritage), dedicated to supporting China’s great masters in five art forms: lacquer, lacquer carving, porcelain, thangka scrolls, and ivory carving. Xue tracked down 62-year-old Li Chunke, one of only about 12 national master ivory carvers in China. Xue built Li an ivory-carving studio in Beijing’s arts district, rented him an apartment, and opened this stunning new gallery. Nothing in it is for sale. Xue is Li’s only customer.

 “The elephant is a good friend of man,” Li says. “When elephants die, they want to leave man something behind as a good deed to have a good next life.” Li carves ivory to honor the elephant’s gift. As Buddhists, Li and Xue abhor killing. Their ivory comes from the government, they explain, and so is supposed to be from elephants that died of natural causes.

 Just as some Filipino priests baptize ivory images, Buddhist monks perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons. “Ivory is very precious,” Xue tells me, “so to be respectful of the Buddha one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious.” It is a version of the same message I heard from Filipino Catholics: Ivory honors God.
 (Continues next week)
SOURCE: National Geographic/CNN/Sunday Mail