By Carmel Loise Matus
CEBU CITY—The regional office of the National Bureau of Investigation has suspended its investigation of the alleged involvement of a priest in the illegal ivory trade due to insufficient evidence.
Gregorio Algoso Jr., supervising agent of the NBI in Central Visayas, said the case was considered temporarily closed as of Oct. 25 last year, a year and a month after the investigation started.
The NBI regional office started investigating the illegal ivory trade after being requested to do so by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Cebu provincial board.
Cebu has been tagged one of the hot spots in the world for the illegal ivory trade in a National Geographic magazine article.
Algoso said that after a visit at the Society of Angels of Peace, a congregation Msgr. Cristobal Garcia founded in Talisay City, sometime in October or November in 2012, agents had identified only three religious icons believed to be made of ivory.
But Algoso said the agents lacked the technical expertise to determine if the three icons, which are part of Garcia’s collection, were acquired before or after 1981, the year an international law banning ivory trade took effect.
The agents also lacked the expertise to determine if the icons were indeed made of ivory, said Algoso.
“Although it was admitted by the caretaker that it was made of ivory, for confirmatory examination, we don’t have an expert on that matter,” he said.
In the National Geographic magazine article, Garcia was quoted as giving tips to the article’s author about how to smuggle ivory into the United States. The priest was also quoted as listing the names of his favorite ivory carvers in Manila.
The report prompted the DENR to conduct an investigation.
Algoso said the DENR had promised to provide an ivory expert from the National Museum of the Philippines but the promise was unkept.
Algoso said agents met with Garcia in Makati City sometime in November 2012 in the posh Dasmariñas Village.
During that meeting, Algoso said Garcia denied involvement in the ivory trade.
The National Geographic article, which came out in October 2012, said the demand for ivory in the Philippines was driven by the use of ivory for religious icons.
Algoso said that based on agents’ interviews with antique collectors and antique dealers in 2012, Manila is a transit point for smuggled ivory coming from Africa.
Although the NBI has closed the case, regional NBI director Antonio Pagatpat said they would reopen it if there would be new evidence and if an expert from the National Museum finally arrived.
The elephant population worldwide has suffered a sharp decline because of poaching. The animals are being slaughtered in places in Africa where elephant populations are nearing levels of extinction. The trafficking of ivory, however, continues as the National Geographic article has pointed out.