Just before sunset on a low hill in Nairobi’s safari park, some 50 religious leaders stood in a solemn circle around a pit containing the charred remains of 13 tons of elephant ivory burned to keep it out of poachers’ hands.
Led first by an Anglican Christian, then by a Muslim imam, a trio of Hindu devotees, and a Buddhist, prayers were offered, each asking for forgiveness for the damage that humans are inflicting on wildlife and the environment.
The quiet moment under the reddening sky followed a three-day gathering of African religious leaders, organized by conservationists keen to explain to these community trendsetters the reality of the current crisis in wildlife protection on the continent. The hope is that they then return home and pass the message on to their congregations.
Together, the 50 men and women here for the meeting reach more than 180 million followers, according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a Britain-based group that helped arrange the event.
“Protection of the environment and its creatures is I think one of the major points of convergence between all religions,” says Dekila Chungyalpa, a Buddhist and director of Sacred Earth, a new World Wildlife Fund program to forge closer connections between religions and conservationists. “We as conservationists can frame the discussion on stopping poaching, for example, in legal and ecological terms. But these religious leaders can frame it in a moral context, and talk about the religious duty to act to protect the environment. As an individual in a congregation, it then becomes unavoidable that you must act.”
The illegal wildlife trade is now the world’s fifth-largest illicit transnational activity, after counterfeiting and the illegal trafficking of drugs, people, and oil, according to Global Financial Integrity in Washington.
It is worth as much as $10 billion a year, and surging demand for elephant ivory in China and Thailand and rhino horn in Vietnam made 2011 the deadliest for more than two decades for these two iconic species.
There were more large-scale ivory seizures in Africa and in destination markets last year than since records began more than 20 years ago. In South Africa alone, 448 rhinos were poached in 2011, up from just 13 four years before.
“These statistics, they are just shocking. Truly few of us had any idea,” said the Rev. Denis Kumbo, a Presbyterian pastor from Buea in western Cameroon.
“There is the idea that some men go to the jungle to find meat for their family, and that is poaching,” Mr. Kumbo went on. “Now we see that it is organized criminals, and they are using helicopters, night-vision goggles, automatic weapons. It is as sophisticated as the drugs trade.”
The challenge, says Hajjat A.K. Sebyala, a Muslim woman from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is making the value of conserving wildlife clear to people who live far from wilderness areas and have other priorities.
“All this talk of elephants, of rhinos, what does this matter to people living in a city who are struggling for their daily bread?” she asks.
She tells a story of giving fellow Muslims tree seedlings as gifts during Ramadan three years ago. Everyone complained, asking why she did not offer sugar or porridge, something they could eat immediately.
“Then the second year,” she says, “people saw the sugar had gone but the tree was still providing fruit. They wanted more seedlings. By the third year, they were fighting over the seedlings.”
Her point, she says, is that it is important first to “improve understanding” about any given issue – in this case, protecting the environment and helping to stop poaching.
“You will only inspire positive and sustained action from people if they first understand,” she says. “Without understanding, there will be no change.”
At that moment, the safari van, its roof popped up to allow better wildlife spotting, stopped suddenly.
Isabella Nyabua, our Kenya Wildlife Service guide, pointed into the grasslands to the left, where a huge white rhino was ponderously ambling up from a mudbath.
“This is a gift. This truly is God’s work,” the Rev. Patrick Mureithi, the Kenyan Presbyterian in the car, said softly. Mrs. Sebyala stood and demanded pictures with the rhino in the distance, shooting questions at Ms. Nyabua.
The excitement and the awe at seeing the animal in the wild held everyone in the vehicle rapt for several long minutes. “This is a gift,” repeated Mr. Mureithi.
For Hamza Mtunu, director of the National Muslim Council of Tanzania, the job of all of the religious leaders attending the Nairobi event now is to try to convey that sense of spiritual awe to their congregations.
“It’s important to change people’s perception that protecting the wildlife and the environment is purely a secular concern; it’s not,” he says. “In the Quran, we hear not just of the importance of protecting animals, but also of how it is wrong not to act if you see someone harming animals or the environment.
“Yes, we learn that we are instructed to make use of the fruits of the environment," he continues. "But killing animals for their teeth or their horn, for trinkets, is that not pure mischief and against Scripture? That is what I will go home and talk about.”
As the sun finally slipped beneath the horizon and the prayers at the ivory burning memorial hung in the air, one final promise was made by the leaders gathered there.
“We as the people of God,” they said together, “promise to work together to protect the creation of God.”