Demand for ivory by Buddhists a factor in unabated elephant poaching

The massacre of wild African elephants for the illegal ivory trade continues virtually unabated, according to a study released this week.

Konchog Norbu
4 December 2013

Poachers killed about 22,000 elephants in 2012, and the already-decimated population would decline by 20% over the next decade at current rates, the study says. One of the main reasons cited for the elephant slaughter is “rising demand for illegal ivory in consuming nations.” What the study does not explicitly say, however, is that many of these consumers are at least nominally Buddhist, purchasing carved ivory figurines and amulets in Asian markets.

A major exposé published last year in National Geographic—“Ivory Worship”—highlighted Thailand and especially populous China as the two major ivory-consuming nations:

“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…

“On the corner of one of the most popular ivory-selling streets in China, outside the Hualin International Buddhist jewelry arcade, a four-story electronic billboard runs a video announcing to passersby a hot new investment opportunity: Sales of Buddhist jewelry and related religious products have reached $15.8 billion a year and are growing by 50 percent a year. ‘There are nearly 200 million Buddhism believers in China,’ the sign declares. Inside the building two stores deal exclusively in ivory carvings. Down the street other galleries offer Buddhist ivory carvings—some legal, some not.”

The elephant has long been a symbol for the Buddha. His mother, Queen Maya, dreamed of a six-tusked white elephant, holding a lotus in its trunk, entering her body the night he was conceived. In the Bull Elephant Sutta, the Buddha is served by an elephant while living alone in the forest, and comments favorably on how each delights in the solitary life. In another story, the Buddha subdued the intoxicated, rampaging elephant Nalagiri simply by the power of radiating loving-kindness. Taming a wild elephant is a common simile for the mental calm achieved by meditation.

Understanding the positive significance of the elephant in Buddhist culture, the World Wildlife Fund, when meeting with CITES delegates in Bangkok earlier this year, engaged Thai Buddhist leaders to conduct a special blessing ceremony for the poached elephants. According to the WWF report, “They also called on their congregations and other temples to reject the use and trade of ivory.”

Just before that summit, Sri Lanka came under strong criticism for donating a seized shipment of illegal ivory to a Buddhist temple.

With demand for ivory so high, there is clearly much more to be done by the Asian Buddhist leadership to advocate against purchasing ivory, even if it’s said to be “clean” (from stock that pre-dates the 1990 CITES ban on international trade). Seen through a karmic lens, they could help their followers understand not only the brutal ways the elephants are killed (baiting with cyanide-laced watermelons is one example), often leaving orphaned babies, but also how the extremely lucrative trade directly funds criminal gangs, with ivory even traded for weapons to arm some of Africa’s most notoriously violent militias, such as Joseph Kony’s LRA.

Learn more about efforts to stop wild elephant poaching:


Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu became a Buddhist in 1990 and ordained as a monk in 1993. Since then, he has overseen communications and media relations for several dharma organizations, authored the widely-read blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa during a four-year stint in Mongolia, and filled his begging bowl on occasion with freelance writing and editing gigs.