Vatican Stand on Religious Use of Ivory Would Help Slow Illegal Killings of Elephants

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. Only last week, scandal erupted in Sri Lanka over the proposed delivery of seized ivory to a Buddhist monastery.

As described in Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic, Catholics in such countries as the Philippines and Italy are consumers of ivory, too.

Many may see this as a terrible revelation, but new awareness resulting from Christy’s reporting presents a rare opportunity to solve part of the ivory crime problem. With this in mind, last September I wrote to Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, in the hope that the Vatican would take a leadership role regarding the use of ivory by Catholics. Certainly, use of illegally obtained ivory needs to be condemned, but the Vatican might also recognize the harmful effect public giving of legal ivory as diplomatic gifts to heads of state and others has in fueling illegal trade among followers.

On September 11, 2012, before the release of Christy’s story, I emailed this first letter to Father Lombardi:

“We are writing to inquire about the Vatican’s position on the use of elephant ivory for devotional icons, and we urge your reply by noon Vatican time on Wednesday, September 12.

As you may know, the National Geographic Society has long supported scientists and ecologists working to understand the biology of African elephants and secure their future wellbeing. You may also be aware that at the ongoing 2012 meeting of the World Conservation Congress in South Korea, urgent measures are being discussed to stop the slaughter of African elephants for their ivory. The illegal killing—butchering—of elephants is currently at its highest level in a decade. This disturbing trend is also the subject of a series of articles launched last week by the New York Times.

Ivory, new and old, is still widely used by Roman Catholics for devotional purposes and as a symbolic gift between heads of state and other high officials. Last year, for instance, Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible.

Under the Seventh Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2418), it is stated that: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

In light of this, what is the Vatican’s position on the use of carved ivory for devotional purposes, whether that ivory is obtained illegally—and brutally—by poachers or legally from elephants that have died naturally? Does the Vatican consider the use of ivory religious carvings and ecclesiastical gifts to be morally wrong or at odds with Church doctrine?

Vatican City isn’t a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that it is exempt from the international ivory trade ban that went into force in 1990. Nonetheless is the selling of ivory carvings in shops on St. Peter’s Square a cause of concern for the Church, especially given the deep crisis now facing African elephants?

With many thanks for your timely response.”

The Wait Begins

On September 12, I received a note from the press office saying that Father Lombardi was “very busy for the next Papal Visit to Lebanon but he will try to do a research about your query.”

Fair enough. But then I heard nothing. On November 13, I sent another letter to the Vatican press office, excerpted below:

“Following the publication of Bryan Christy’s story, there has been a great deal of discussion in the public arena condemning the continued use of elephant ivory for religious icons, and pointing out that this is a practice religious leaders everywhere should themselves condemn. Efforts are currently under way by religious and scientific groups to engage religious leaders in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to stop illegal wildlife trafficking, especially in ivory.

The Italian press reported recently (October 31) that the Savelli Gallery on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, which Christy wrote about, was among ivory shops raided by Italy’s Forestry police. The implication that possibly illegal ivory is on sale in a Vatican shop is disturbing. But there are deeper issues that it would seem within the realm of the Church to address, namely that the ivory trade—whether legal or illegal—has opened the door to unprecedented levels of crime in Africa and around the world. New record levels of African elephants are being poached, rangers in the field are being killed (as are poachers), corruption is expanding, and ivory is financing criminal violence in many parts of Africa. Ivory is also lining the pockets of major transnational criminal kingpins, especially in Asia.

As Christy wrote, “The Vatican has recently demonstrated a commitment to confronting transnational criminal problems, signing agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime.”

It would seem that the Vatican could make an important contribution to both humankind and the environment by taking a few important steps, in particular: (1) Declare the use of ivory for religious purposes as no longer acceptable. (2) Call for an immediate halt to all carving and exchange of ivory for religious and commercial purposes. (3) Accede to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

I look forward to Father Lombardi’s response, with sincere thanks.”

Continuing Silence 

On December 4, I again requested a response, advising that, “We intend to publish on the National Geographic Society website this ongoing effort to engage with the Vatican on the subject of ivory. I believe the Church’s response would offer a good opportunity to demonstrate how it anticipates being able to contribute to alleviating the problems identified in Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story.”

Next Steps 

The killing of African elephants isn’t slowing. Rather, it seems to be getting worse by the day. The leaders of religious organizations can help change long-held beliefs that a person’s faith is somehow strengthened through devotional icons made of elephant ivory.

If you would like to express your thoughts, you can write to: Father Federico Lombardi:, copying Ms. Cristina Ravenda:

Oliver Payne is articles editor at National Geographic. He edited Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship” story.


  1. Craig
    November 28, 2015, 7:32 pm

    So after reading your article and the comments here and then the response from the Vatican press office I’m left wondering if you have any journalist integrity — or any integrity period. Anyone who has been to Rome can tell you that there are no shops in St Peters and you can reference old issues of National Geographic to understand how the Vatican territory works. Did you research that? Apparently not. Instead you went ahead it would seem with your innuendo and encouraged the usual angry half wits above rather than keeping everyone focused on the real issue of what is happening to elephants.

  2. Akintunde A.O
    Ibadan, Nigeria
    April 11, 2014, 4:40 pm

    It’s so sad and disheartening that for the love of money and religious materialism we have refused to speak against the needless killings of elephants globally and most especially in Africa and Asia. It is not only the Vatican that should speak publicly against the use of ivory for religious purposes and even personal purposes that might place an expensive monetary value on it so as to deter poachers from killing these elephants needlessly through its consequent serious devaluation of ivory, but governments should also speak publicly by passing bills that will deter people from killing elephants and carvers from carvering ivory without approval within their borders into law. Lastly, mass awareness should be encouraged and practiced by organizations, individuals and governments to enlighten people against the killing of elephants. The responsibility to protect animals from extinction and conserving wildlife rests upon us as the most intellectual and civilized of the inahabitants of planet earth. At the same time I believe the vatican should declare their support of this Godly cause to conserve his creations “all in all” by declaring the use of ivory for religious and personal purposes as ungodly and highly unnecessary.

  3. Melissa
    Connecticut USA
    November 7, 2013, 12:02 pm

    Thank you for reporting this crisis for public awareness. We need to continue to put pressure to stop selling ivory.

  4. donato85
    February 9, 2013, 7:07 am

    Mr Payne,
    if Italy’s Forestry police could enter in the shop and could seize its religious artifacts this means that it was not in Vatican City but in Rome. Italian police could not operate in Vatican City!
    So why do you write about a “Vatican shop”?
    Even reading “Savelli Gallery on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City” could confuse someone as
    In Vatican City there is St. Peter’s Square and not Savelli Gallery! This is an Italian shop that responds to Italian laws. That this shop had illegal ivory will be decided by the Italian court.

  5. Frances Hilton
    January 23, 2013, 3:13 am

    It does not surprise me in the least that this (allegedly) morally bankrupt organisation would not respond to the use of ivory. Killing for the sake of ‘trinkets’ is wrong – All Creatures Great and Small – the lord god made them all – obviously the Vatican do not practise what they preach. EVER.

  6. olga
    Nairobi, Kenya
    January 21, 2013, 5:10 pm

    This is an eye opener for me. I have never noticed nor seen ivory in churches. Where, in the Vatican, is ivory used? Is there ivory in St. Peter’s Basilica? Why would statesmen in the Vatican present gifts of carved ivory? What significance would it have? If they are really doing this, then it is time for them to stop and look into other manner of gifts.

  7. Lori conley
    Easthampton, MA 01027
    January 21, 2013, 12:02 pm

    We ask that you stop using ivory as religious icons. The loss of wildlife esp elephants due to ivory poachers has escalated to a tragic level. Please do the right thing to help end this awful tragedy!

  8. liliana ruggeri
    livorno italy
    January 21, 2013, 10:56 am

    i hope father Lombardi take a good action on the ivory issue
    PLEASE …….. THINK the elephant need love and to be free
    THANK !!!! Padre Lonbardi se dovesse leggere queste righe
    La prego di NON usare l’avorio per la ChIESA non dobbiamo far morire gli elefanti per questo GRAZIE Liliana

  9. the best
    January 21, 2013, 8:35 am

    thank you all peaple what about yuo

  10. ashley
    miami, fl
    January 20, 2013, 3:28 pm

    It is so sad to see this article posted on NG and to see how horrible people could talk about the catholic church. People have no respect for others belief and with a great ignorance talk without knowing truly what the catholic church teachings are. so much ignorance from Oliver Payne who seem to believe that he found a legit article that flows with truth but this article actually lowers NG creditability. The fact that Religious icons are being done out of ivory and that the “Catholic Church” seem to be the one that can help alleviate the buy is a bold statement to make and in my opinion completely false and irrelevant to the real issue. I believe that the author wanted to pin the issue at hand on someone and unfortunately the vatican was a target he found fit. Almost missed your deadline on a juicy story? I am not here to argue but just to enlightened the individuals who believe that the “Vatican” is a major culprit in this ongoing injustice. NG needs to hire more accountable individuals that post the articles under their name.

  11. tina tens
    January 19, 2013, 8:01 pm

    stop using ivory for the icons

  12. tina tens
    January 19, 2013, 7:59 pm

    please stop the use of ivory for your icons!!!

  13. gloria sapp
    January 19, 2013, 2:47 pm


  14. Julie Martenson
    January 19, 2013, 2:28 pm

    So when foes the Vatican do something right without public pressure?

  15. Save Queenie Save Elephants
    January 19, 2013, 12:41 pm

    We have posted your call to action to email Father Federico Lombardi and Ms. Cristina Ravenda on our facebook page:

  16. Tory
    January 19, 2013, 12:38 pm

    The smallest group in the chain and the easiest to control are the carvers,who say they have the “right to carve,” are supported by the Chinese government which should stop the carvers. The gov’t should also raid the shops which are stuffed with ivory and arrest the sellers who tell buyers that elephants “drop their teeth.” A massive TV promo needs to be done by China needs to correct this seller lie. Even with the carvers stopped there will be ivory to buy for years, unless China burns it. No carving = nothing to sell = nothing to buy = no demand = no poaching.

  17. Ronald
    January 19, 2013, 7:27 am

    Joe P. Thanks for your correction and I agree with it. I now see the sense of highlighting this issue in all the possible dimensions.

  18. Daniel Jost
    January 19, 2013, 7:22 am

    I’m guessing Father Federico Lombardi doesn’t speak English, like most Italians…

  19. julius
    January 18, 2013, 5:28 pm

    Cheap shot Here. Attack someone who will only pray for your conversion. What exactly do you want the Vatican to say?
    It is already a signatory to your treaties, which come into effect after the fact. The ivory already in liturgical ornaments will surely remain for use in worship. You can’t cry over spilt milk.

  20. Kari Dougherty
    San Francisco, CA
    January 18, 2013, 2:28 pm

    The article I’ve been waiting for – THANK YOU Mr. Payne.

    With all due respect, Mr. Kennedy, perhaps you aren’t seeing the urgency of the situation. The rate of their decimation is not allowing time for an economic empowerment solution — the orphanages are filling up, the situation is dire, so it is demand for ivory that must be addressed now.

    Because the ivory is used primarily for religious purposes, the obvious place to “start” is with the church. What isn’t clear to me is whether Catholics in these countries (China, The Philippines, etc) are connected culturally to the Vatican, as I’ve been told that their relationship to the Vatican is not what it is in the West. I have no idea whether that is true (do any of you?) but if it is, then what other avenues are there for shining the light on this?

    I would really appreciate feedback. And thank you, Mr. Payne, for posting the email address so that we can write as well.

  21. Joe P
    Haddonfield, NJ
    January 18, 2013, 2:05 pm

    Sorry Ronald, the writer is not being vindictive. The church holds sway on a significant sector of the market – ivory used for religious artifacts, AND, with more than one billion members worldwide, plus the attention of the rest of the Christian world, a persuasive platform. The writer is highlighting a sector that, up until now, nobody even thinks of. I’ve been following this issue for quite some time and never once thought of religious artifacts. Yes, this amount is nowhere near the massive tons being smuggled into Asia currently, but surely, ANY stoppage of use and correction of mindset is a huge victory. To have the Church speak out against what is going on would awaken many of the world as it would be newsworthy.

    Most people are not informed. As a small child in the 60’s did I know where that ivory trinket, that ivory replica of Jesus crucified? No. If I asked, I surely was met with the answer “It comes from elephants.” and having an innocent mind would have thought nothing more than it was taken from naturally deceased elephants. Many are just as naive into their adulthood or do not have the access to information that a 1st World country has. The church would go a long way in providing a voice that travels to all areas of the world and at least wakes up the faithful.

  22. Linda
    January 18, 2013, 12:28 pm

    I am a Chinese and I am furious when I read those inhuman act done to those big beautiful creatures. And most shocking thing is I saw twice of those carvings in Guangzhou during my short business trip (maybe because this article draw my attention to it). Once as a trophy in the meeting room, and once as a souvenir for sale at the Guangzhou intl airport !!!

  23. Judith I. Knox
    N.B. Canada
    January 18, 2013, 11:37 am

    I appreciate and agree with the comment made by Peter Nicholas Otis. Thank you!

  24. Ian Redmond
    Stroud, UK
    January 18, 2013, 10:51 am

    By coincidence, I read this article just after reading a report from a colleague in Africa working for, “In September 2008 in Brazzaville, the first assistant of Vatican Ambassador was arrested with three tusks in the diplomatic pouch…”

  25. Peter Nicholas Otis
    New York, NY
    January 18, 2013, 10:31 am

    Well written, and a most agreeable cause. However, I would like to contest your concluding statement: that “The leaders of religious organizations can help change long-held beliefs that a person’s faith is somehow strengthened through devotional icons made of elephant ivory.”

    I agree that the Vatican can be useful in at least providing supportive rhetoric against the use of ivory. Yet, I would be very interested to know what sources have led you to conclude that papist use of devotional ivory is indelibly rooted in “long-held beliefs” in the material properties of ivory.

    Rather, I would say that regular old western materialism is the blame. Certainly, this is neither exciting nor scandalous, and far more mundane than to believe that Catholics are especially beholden to ivory for devotional purposes, which is not true (perhaps for a backward-minded individual, as not to rule out the possibility).

    Yet it is just the boring, inevitable glut and greed of individuals who are drawn to the aesthetic glamour of ivory rosary beads, ivory icons, the ivory corpus on a crucifix, etc., the typical calling card of persons more concerned with their earthly splendor than transcendental concerns. This is no secret.

    Ivory was originally used in Christian civilization for its practicality. Being that ivory carvings tend to be small in size and shape, ivory tryptichs and icons were originally used during the Byzantine millennium because of their compact size–fit for travel.

    Nonetheless, it is nothing less than a shame that a Piazza San Pietro gift shop was permitted to go on selling sacred ivory bric a brac.

    Even if we were to achieve the moral victory of eliminating a Western market for ivory, it’s the rest of the world, which turns a cold, blind eye to western publications such as this one, that must be convinced. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t function like an episode of Captain Planet, in which a malicious, greedy Western industrialist in a tailored suit is the usual mastermind behind every heinous poaching.

  26. karen
    January 18, 2013, 10:05 am

    All this talk and blame is skirting the true issue…it must stop. Obviously there is not strong enough sanctions…I will write, but there must be other measures…

  27. Jean Bird
    January 18, 2013, 9:21 am

    Come on we all know the Church doesn’t give a fig for animals – it is the reason I left many years ago. The People Brigade Church is only concerned for people – really sad but true!!

  28. Ronald
    January 18, 2013, 9:04 am

    The writer of this article is being petty when he is trying to pin the crisis on the Vatican. In my opinion, he is being vindictive for not getting responses from the Vatican. We all know where the bulk of those illegally obtained ivory end up in and for what purpose. Please let us stick to what the real issues are – Even if the Vatican would do as he wishes, that would not stop/slow it in the significant sense.

  29. Brenda S.
    Ontario, Canada
    January 18, 2013, 8:48 am

    THANK YOU Oliver Payne, for your communications with the Vatican, and for publishing their total lack of concern! While anti-poaching efforts and support of local communities grow daily, it is a WAR. I wonder, that if the church “administration” won’t listen, whether there are organized groups of Catholic/Christan animal-lovers who would join in the fight? ( WITHOUT sending in missionaries! ). I note that , to my knowledge, the Dalai Lama has also not addressed the issue – because I’ve already signed petitions to him. But I WILL write letters, and search my local compatriots for supporters. If I can’t move the pope, maybe I can move just one priest or parishioner in my own community.

  30. mike kennedy
    Gorham, Maine
    January 17, 2013, 9:27 pm

    The only real solution to protecting elephants and other animals that are killed for parts is to increase the standard of living where these animals live. They get paid very little for killing an elephant and selling the tusks. The huge markup happens later. For some it might be a choice between supporting a family or not. If people were not so desperately poor they would not be so willing to kill animals for parts. They need economical and environmetally sustainable jobs before this will stop.

  31. Bellachella
    Amherst, NY
    January 17, 2013, 9:25 pm

    For centuries the Catholic Church hid pedophiles and denied any knowledge of priests abusing children, so I am not surprised that the Vatican is “researching” the Church’s involvement with ivory and has declined to respond The pews are empty because the Vatican has no morale authority.