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Ivory Urn Raises Questions on Illegal Trade


In this file photo, Thai women hold a portrait of Thai Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara in Bangkok on October 25, 2013.

In this file photo, Thai women hold a portrait of Thai Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara in Bangkok on October 25, 2013.


An urn has been created from ivory to hold the remains of Thailand’s top religious leader. The production of the urn comes as the country faces international pressure to stop the illegal trade of ivory. Thailand is said to be the world’s largest market for unrestricted ivory sales.

Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyansamvara died last October at the age of 100. A ceremony will be held next year to move his burned remains into an urn, or container, made of ivory.

Ninety-five percent of Thailand is Buddhist. The Supreme Patriarch, or Sangharaja, headed the Sangha Supreme Council. He directed all Buddhist monks in Thailand. He was appointed by the King at the suggestion of the prime minister.

Ten kilograms of ivory were used to make the urn. They were taken three years ago from the tusk of a 70-year-old male elephant named Thongbai. Tusks of captive elephants are sometimes cut from the animals for health reasons.

But some Buddhist leaders have urged their followers and religious centers to reject the use and trade of ivory, even if it comes from captured elephants. They note that the demand for ivory causes illegal hunting and killing of elephants. The elephant is a respected animal in Buddhism and across Thailand.

Phra Maha Napan Santidhaddo serves as one of the leaders of the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok. He says Buddhists should not take actions which would cause more animals to be harmed. He said they should not even think about it.

“In the case it’s not harming any elephant it would be fine. But we have to be careful about the message that we send to the society that ‘oh, it would be great if we can do the urn from the ivory.’ And maybe it causes a new circle of destroying elephant life.”

Thai tradition considers ivory a pure and fine material. Donating ivory for the urn of a highly respected person is considered good.

Other materials suggested for the Supreme Patriarch’s urn were criticized. Gold is only to be used for members of Thailand’s ruling family. And critics judged materials like marble, ceramic or wood as too common.

Phra Maha Napan says publicity about the Supreme Patriarch’s ivory urn provides a chance to educate Buddhists.

“We have to respect both sides -- the environmentalists and the ones who have a strong belief in making merit. It’s a great chance to educate both of them.”

Sales of ivory from captive elephants are legal in Thailand. But the kingdom has no ivory registration system. So, knowing where the product came from is not possible.

TRAFFIC is an organization that watches over wildlife trade. It says lack of a registry creates a way to bring illegal ivory from African elephants into the Thai marketplace. Many Thais do not know of the link between ivory and wildlife crime.

Nipon Chotiban heads Thailand’s national parks and wildlife agency. The official is calling for an amendment to existing legislation. The amendment would help bring ivory trade within the country under control.

I’m Jeri Watson.

*This report is based on a story from VOA correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok.

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Words in the News

recommendation - n., a suggestion about what should be done

legislation - n., a law or set of laws made by a government

critics - n., people who express a reasoned opinion on any matter, especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty or technique (method)

marketplace - n., a place where products are bought and sold; the area of economic activity in which buyers and sellers come together and the forces of supply and demand affect prices

environmentalists - n., people who work to defend air, water, animals, plants and other natural resources from pollution and its effects

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