WWJD: Why Are Elephants Dying for Religion?

The Catholic Church has publically condemned the use of ivory for religious figurines.

This Jesus figurine is made of elephant ivory. (DeAgostini Library/Getty Images)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Figurines and statues have been a part of Christianity since its inception, but should we be killing animals to make them? Sadly, religion figures heavily in the demand for ivory, something Noah probably didn't have in mind when he marched those animals onto the ark.

Despite the efforts of multiple organizations and governments throughout the world, the killing of elephants for their tusks continues at an alarming rate. Just last week, Kenyan authorities seized two tons of illegal elephant ivory at the Kenyan port of Mombasa that was bound for Indonesia. And earlier this month, custom agents in Hong Kong discovered 779 elephant tusks hidden in the false bottoms of shipping crates from Kenya, which represented at least 389 elephant deaths.

Last September, Oliver Payne, a National Geographic journalist, decided to tackle the lust for tusk from a different angle—the God angle. According to Payne, "The religious use of ivory is among the least publicized and seemingly most easily correctable drivers of the massive elephant slaughter now taking place across Africa."

Payne wrote to Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican’s press office, to see if “the Vatican would take a leadership role regarding the use of ivory by Catholics.”

Contacted for comment, Father Lombardi sent TakePart a lengthy letter dated January 22 that was addressed to "Oliver Payne and friends of the elephants." It stated, in part, that “regarding animals, the position of the Catholic has always been that, even if these certainly do not have the same level of dignity and thus of rights as human beings, they are living beings and of a higher perfection than plant life, especially those more evolved animals that are capable of relationships and sensations, of feeling pleasure and pain, for which they merit respectful treatment. They cannot be arbitrarily killed or made to suffer.”

He also noted that in his experience the Church has not encouraged the use of ivory for devotional objects. “We all know that there are ivory objects of religious significance, mostly ancient, because ivory was considered a beautiful and valuable material. There has never, however, been encouragement on the part of the Church to use ivory instead of any other material.”

“Nevertheless, we are absolutely convinced that the massacre of elephants is a very serious matter, against which it is right that everyone who can do something should be committed.”

Father Lombardi then went on to outline three things he thought could be accomplished by “a program of information and empowerment through some ‘Vatican’ organizations.” These include:

1) “To bring this issue to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which is the Vatican dicastery responsible for studying precisely those problems associated with justice and peace, but also with the environment.”

2) “To propose to the sections of Vatican Radio that prepare programming for Africa (in English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili) to investigate into this topic and to speak about it in radio programs in order to encourage the ecclesial communities it addresses to engage in the fight against poaching and the illegal ivory trade, as well as to propose informational material to the other sections of Vatican Radio in order to raise awareness among their audiences.”

3) “To make the contributions of the research of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on environmental issues and biodiversity more widely known.”

Father Lombardi ended his letter by saying that, “The slaughter of elephants will not stop because of these initiatives, but at least we are working together to seek practical solutions to stopping it with the possibilities of information and training available to us.”

Do you think religious organizations should be more actively involved in trying to stop the slaughter of elephants?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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