Why the Philippines’ role in the illegal ivory trade must stop

Ivory Smuggling China
A new report finds smuggled ivory is rampant in China, much of it from illegal poaching in Africa
The Philippines have become a significant transit point for illegally traded ivory, and far greater law enforcement is required, says Elephant Family's Dan Bucknall

The publication of a feature article on “Blood Ivory” by Bryan Christy, in this month’s National Geographic magazine, has created a much-needed stir in the Philippines. Among other things, the article exposed the involvement of Catholic devotees in the illegal ivory trade, and in doing so provoked the swift and welcome response that the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation is now looking into the claims made. Their initial focus was on one priest who featured heavily in the article, but the investigation has quickly widened following concerns that the trade is more widespread. Yet other evidence points to an even larger problem: that the Philippines have become a significant transit point for illegally traded ivory, and that far greater law enforcement is required, as it is in so many other states involved.

Research carried out by Esmond and Chryssee Martin, and funded by the Aspinall Foundation and Elephant Family, revealed that large quantities of tusks have been sent to the Philippines in transit to other East Asian countries, particularly China and Thailand. The Philippines has a long tradition of using elephant ivory for more than 400 years, ever since the Spanish arrived, bringing Catholicism and a demand for ecclesiastical statues known as santos. But its role as a significant entrepôt appears to have developed recently as state authorities have clamped down on the trade through previously well-known routes, such as the Sheikhdoms in the Arabian Gulf and Malaysia.

The Philippines has a reputation of lax law enforcement. Only a small fraction of containers carrying tusks from Africa is intercepted and confiscated when they reach the ports. According to traders there, some of these tusks have been stolen by government officials and sold to private dealers in Manila. Meanwhile, the great majority of containers are not checked adequately, and the illegal ivory continues to reach its destination.

There are also millions of Filipinos now working abroad, especially in South-East Asia and the Gulf States, some of whom smuggle home tusks, particularly from the Middle East and Asia, and worked ivory carved mostly in China and Africa.
Within the Philippines, illegal tusks are bought by dealers and artisans for US $450/kg on average. There are about 50 part-time ivory carvers in the Philippines who mostly carve the santos for churches and for home worship, as well as some other figurines and jewellery. All wholesalers and retailers of wildlife items since 2004 must be registered with the government, but permission is not granted to sell new ivory items. Newly carved ivory santos are generally not displayed for sale in the shops, but during their research Esmond and Chryssee Martin found 20 retail outlets in Manila with 264 ivory items for sale. There was no attempt to hide these items from public view, in the knowledge that prosecution would be unlikely.

However, there is not the demand for such huge quantities of ivory for the local market as those that are passing through. What is importantly needed is a crackdown at the Bureau of Customs to seize the ivory consignments that are in transit, as well as to prevent those tusks that are confiscated from leaking into the local market. Church authorities and retailers should also be encouraged to play their part in stopping the demand and trade in new illegal worked ivory.

While more is needed, the swift response from the Filipino authorities is to be commended. The situation in the Philippines is indicative of an international illegal trade in ivory that is spiraling out of all control. Other governments still need to do far more to overcome it, especially in China and Thailand as the major destinations. 2011 was recorded as one of the worst years for the illegal ivory trade, with more large seizures taking place than in any previous year since the international ban came into effect in 1990. African elephants are being slaughtered on a massive scale, and the poaching of Asian elephants appears to be on the rise.

The case of the Philippines shows that where one illegal trade route closes, another will open. It is absurd that at the next conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok in March, governments will once again debate whether to allow a further legal one-off sale of stockpiled ivory (from confiscations and natural mortality), following a recent request to do so from Tanzania. Despite reports to the contrary at the last CITES meeting in July, Elephant Family and many others believe that the previous one-off sale to China in 2008 has fuelled the illegal trade, and are strongly opposed to any future sales. Decisions made in March will be critical for the future of the world’s remaining elephants.

Dan Bucknell is head of conservation and campaigns at Elephant Family


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