Following a three-year project into the illegal ivory trade, Brent Stirton talks to us about the motivations behind his latest work, and exposes the place religion occupies in the demand, and continuation, of the trade.

Despite the CITES Treaty of 1989, banning the global trade in ivory and rhino horn, the illegal business of killing elephants and maiming rhinos continues. 

“There are a lot of issues out there which, rightly, gain a lot of attention here and now; the conflict in Syria or Mali among them. But there are plenty of stories which don’t receive the coverage they deserve,” explains Brent Stirton.

“I’m trying to look at the long-term picture. For example, the countries where poaching ivory or rhino horn is rife are the ones which depend most on tourism for their money. When the tourists come, they want to see the Big Five safari animals. But if they’ve been hunted out of existence that’s the end of a whole industry along with all the jobs. And that in turn creates social instability.

“With my work, it’s 90% investigation and 10% photography. The research and background preparation before I get into the field takes a lot of effort. It’s time consuming, gaining the trust of the people you need to deal with, but it’s the only way to get in there.

“If I went in as a journalist or photographer, I’d never get to see the things I’ve seen. So, to get the access I need I have often created a different persona, sometimes a priest, sometimes a dealer or a buyer. No one knows except for me. When I arrive, I get a local translator and even they don’t know.

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“The ivory trade of today is all about power and elitism. With the main product, religious icons, being traded for huge sums there’s a lot at stake. And it goes all the way to the top. There’s massive corruption and yet, because it’s a matter of religion, it’s not being challenged.

“It seems that some people of religion have placed devotion ahead of decimation. They’re putting vanity ahead of the consequences. And surely that’s against the central tenets of all scripture?

“I want to place pressure on the people in power. The political leaders, NGOs and religious leaders. I want to see an end to the poaching and see the issuing of religious edicts that the ivory trade is wrong. That’s the game changer. That’s what motivates me.

“I think what’s so striking about the picture of the monk is how he dominates the shot and how that contrasts with the gentleness of the elephant in the background, holding his trainer aloft. How does it glorify any god to decimate this creature?

“The monk has been accused of poisoning elephants to get their ivory. He does this to make amulets and other religious symbols which he then blesses and sells on at a vast profit from his temples in Thailand.

“I’m disgusted by him. He’s embraced greed. And yet he’s somebody who’s supposed to be the embodiment of respect for all living things. There’s just no justification for it and, through this project, I wanted to show that to the world.”

  • CHONDO, VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, MARCH 12: ICCN Congolese conservation rangers and members of the Congolese army capture illegal fisherman, Chondo, Virunga, March 12, 2012. Many of these fisherman are involved in this activity due to poverty, others are there to supply the rebel FDLR group with food. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • BOUBA NDJIDA NATIONAL PARK, NORTH CAMEROON - APRIL 6: The largest mass killing of elephants in recent history took place at Bouba Ndjida National Park in North Cameroon close to the Chad and Central African Republic Borders from January through March 2012 in Bouba Ndjida National Park, Cameroon on April 6, 2012. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • MANYANI, TSAVO, KENYA - JULY 20: The burning of 5 tons of trafficked Ivory recovered from a seizure in Singapore in 2002, Manyani, Tsavo, Kenya, July 20, 2011. The ivory burnt here was originally from Malawi and Zambia, 5 tons of the original 6.4 tons were burnt and the remainder will supposedly be sent back to the 2 countries of origin, Malawi and Zambia. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • NAIROBI, KENYA - JULY 21: A baby orphan elephant and her keeper inside her stall at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, July 21, 2011. This orphan is the victim of a poaching incident, her mother was killed for her tusks and the baby left to fend for herself. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 15: Ivory on sale at government registered White Peacock Arts World, Beijing, China, November 15, 2011. Exquisitely carved large pieces of appriximately one large tusk sell for an average of 1 million RMB, approximately $160,000. There has been an explosion in recent years for Ivory in China. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • MANILA, PHILIPPINES - JANUARY 24: The largest Ivory crucifix in the Philippines, located in the University of Santo Tomas Museum in Manila, Philippines, January 24, 2012. The body of Christ is carved from a single tusk and the arms were carved seperately. There is a long history of the use of Ivory in religious icons in the Philippines, this is a trend which continues today, despite the international ban on Ivory. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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  • CEBU, PHILIPPINES - JANUARY 19: A wealthy, devout Filipino man amongst his religious icon collection which is largely carved out of Ivory, Cebu, Philippines, January 19, 2012. This collection has both new and old pieces, most carved within the last 5 years. There is a collective of wealthy collectors in the Philippines who both search out and commision new work, thus sustaining a trade which allows for the continuing and growing market for new ivory. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.
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