Cebu linked to ivory trade; Priest’s role cited in Nat’l Geographic

Posted on September 25, 2012


Park rangers in Kenya remove tusks of an elephant killed by a poacher in this National Goegraphic photo appearing in its October issue that investigates a thriving illegal market for ivory as Catholic icons as revealed by a Cebu diocesan priest, as amulets of Buddhists in Thailand and other items in huge demand in China. (

A decades-long struggle in faraway Africa to stop the killing of elephants  for their ivory tusks can be partly traced to Cebu as a source of demand and blackmarket trading.

The role of Cebu and one of its promi- nent priests is highlighted in the October issue of National Geographic Magazine in its cover story “Ivory Worship”.

The  investigative article  reports that  while the rise in killings is linked to China’s demand for ivory,  religion is a driver of the illegal ivory trade in key countries, including the Philippines, where ivory is carved and made into faces, bodies and limbs of Catholic icons like the Sto. Niño.

The article opens with and devotes lengthy paragraphs to an interview with Msgr. Cristobal Garcia, who is described as “one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines.”

The writer Bryan Christy states that Msgr. Garcia, whom he visited in his church in Talisay, gave him the names of his “favorite ivory carvers, all  in Manila”  and advice on how to smuggle an ivory icon to the United States by declaring them as antiques or wrapping them in soiled underwear to fool Customs checkers since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989.

The magazine writer said he visited  each of the shops recommended by the priest.

Sought for comment, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma last night said he would answer the allegations in a press conference today or tomorrow.

“I know the issue. I will address it,” he told Cebu Daily News who showed him a printout of the online article. The magazine is not yet on sale in newsstands but early copies are already in the hands of subscribers and posted on the Internet.

Msgr. Garcia, chairman of the Commission on Worship of the Cebu Archdiocese, was not available for comment.   For the past few weeks, he’s been in Manila for medical attention. Calls by CDN to his mobile phone  since last week were not  answered.

“He’s been advised by the doctor to rest because of his hypertension,” said Margie Matheu, secretariat of the Cebu Archbidocese.

Garcia is well respected in Cebu as spritual adviser of covenant communities like the Bukas Loob sa Dios, as well as founder of the Society of Angels of Peace based in Talisay.

His church of the Nazarene is visited by many, especially during the Hubo, a  ritual bathing and changing of clothes of the Sto. Niño at the end of the annual Feast of the Holy Child in January.

Garcia is also well known as a devotee of the Sto. Niño with an extensive personal collection of Sto. Niño icons, started since he was a boy, and which he shares with the public in displays at the Talisay church and in exhibits at Ayala Center every January.

The home of a Filipino collector is lavish with ivory religious icons. “I don’t see the elephant,” says another Filipino collector. “I see the Lord.” (

National Geographic, a monthly magazine known for  its in-depth scientific research work and nature photography, is  printed in 34 language editions and has a global circulation of 8.2 million according to a press release of the magazine in 2011.

It is the official journal of the National Geographic Society and runs articles on geography, popular science, history, culture, current events, and photography.


Environment lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr. expressed outrage upon reading his October subscription copy.  He called for an investigation.

“I want to see lawsuits,” he told CDN in a long-distance call from Manila.

“We are asking the Archidocese, the National Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice, Depatment of Envrionment and Natural Resources, and the  Interpol to investigate and prosecute all persons responsible,” he said.

“This illegal wildlife trade has long been going on with the Philippines as a source, as buyer and as a conduit of wildlife contraband.

This investigation must include the international syndicate behind this operation that exposes all Filipinos (and Catholics) to global embarrassment.  It is quite ironic that the religion whose God designates us humans as caretakers or guardians of life and life forms is the same religion whose priests are now accused of killing iconic life-forms (elephants) to satisfy the “capricho” for religious symbols. “

Oposa, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee in 2009 for his work in environmental law, has filed groundbreaking lawsuits against illegal loggers in Mindanao and government agencies for the pollution of Manila Bay, and has written books for the legal arsenal for ecology activists. /Eileen G Mangubat

Some of the last big tuskers gather in Tsavo, Kenya. A single large tusk sold on the local black market can bring $6,000, enough to support an unskilled Kenyan worker for ten years. (

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