In January a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon's Bouba Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now...
Although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory’s practical uses—billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles—its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists. Last year Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible. In 2007 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave an ivory Santo Niño to Pope Benedict XVI. For Christmas in 1987 President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan bought an ivory Madonna originally presented to them as a state gift by Pope John Paul II. All these gifts made international headlines. Even Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, father of the global ivory ban, once gave Pope John Paul II an elephant tusk. Moi would later make a bigger symbolic gesture, setting fire to 13 tons of Kenyan ivory, perhaps the most iconic act in conservation history.
The largest ivory crucifix in the Philippines hangs in a museum in Manila. The body of Christ, 30 inches long, is carved from a single tusk. The piece dates to the early 1600s, when Spanish galleons began bringing Asian ivory craftsmanship to Spain and the New World.
Bodies are what remain in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park after one of the largest mass elephant slaughters in decades. Armed with grenades and AK-47s, poachers killed more than 300.
Kruba Dharmamuni, aka the Elephant Monk, keeps Asian elephants at his temple in Thailand. Activists accuse him of starving one elephant to use its ivory for amulets, a charge he rejects.
To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of this year six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants; meanwhile, rangers killed 23 poachers.
A sculpture like this can take a master carver years to produce. Front and center are the popular Taoist gods Shou, Lu, and Fu—symbols of long life, money, and luck. “We hope—no, we insist—we can continue to protect these skills,” says Wang Shan, secretary-general of the China Arts and Crafts Association.
Images from the <a href="http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/ivory/christy-text">October issue of National Geographic magazine</a>.