The sun was setting in a cloudless Kenya sky as the prayer ceremony ended.
The religious leaders, an eclectic mix of the world’s great faiths: Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian as well as Africa’s immortal traditional religious elders from across the continent, were fittingly bathed in golden light as they strolled away from the site and got back into their vehicles.
The prayers were part of last year’s ground-breaking Many Heavens, One Earth our Continent Conference that was held in Nairobi, organised by the Alliance of Religion and Conservation to honour the tens of thousands of wildlife, mainly African elephants and rhinos, that have been senselessly exterminated and trafficked to the Far East in recent years.
The religious leaders, at the request of the Kenya Wildlife Service, also gave a moving tribute to the scores of slain Kenyan park rangers and their families.
At the time more than 60 Kenyan rangers had lost their lives protecting the country’s wildlife and hundreds others in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Africa and elsewhere across the continent who died trying to protect wildlife.
In the process, these unsung guardians of Africa’s natural heritage have left behind countless widows and orphans.
The prayer site itself was highly symbolic.
It consisted of a pile of charred elephant ivory in Nairobi National Park where in 1989, under the directive of then Kenya Wildlife Service boss Richard Leakey, Kenyan officials burned hundreds of ivory tusks to draw attention to the killing of elephants in Nairobi.
“The ivory burning memorial site was a solemn place,” remembers Dekila Chungyalpa, Director of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Sacred Earth programme based in Washington, DC.
“The message it sent to the world was that the Kenyan Government had placed the value of nature and of elephants as much more than money and this was their testament.
So, it was a solemn moment for all of us because the mound of burned ivory was so large and you had to contemplate why we humans do this — kill so indiscriminately simply because it gives us money, income and success temporarily — yet it leaves such a terrible legacy for the rest of life.”
The benediction for the slain wildlife and their guardians was not only necessary, but also part of an ancient nexus between man, nature and the divine, according to Father Charles Kwanya, coordinating National Executive Secretary for the Commission for Pastoral and Lay Apostolate, Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, who participated in the conference and prayer ceremony.
Humanity is guilty
“Brutality against nature is a sin against human beings and God,” says Father Kwanya, who has been training priests and staff of Catholic Churches in every diocese of Kenya in wildlife protection.
“Humanity is guilty of sins against nature. Prayer was important because it was a way of showing [that we are] answerable to God for our actions against nature.
Prayer was an art of reconciliation with God the Creator, and with Mother Nature.”
Following the Nairobi conference, participants travelled around Mount Kenya and the coast, where they met with several of Kenya’s indigenous religious leaders.
One place they visited was the Kaya Forest, a Unesco World Heritage Site consisting of scattered coastal forests in East Africa sacred to the Mijikendas.
According to Mijikenda tradition, it is forbidden to kill any living thing inside the Kaya forest unless you are a spiritual elder.
Elders of the Digo community explained that the Fingo, their religious talisman buried in the forest, protects the people of the community.
As long as the elders can protect the Kaya, and therefore the Fingo, their community is intact.
But if the forest disappears, the community is destroyed. Consistent to most sacred places around the world, there are several studies confirming that the Kaya Forest contains incredible endemic biodiversity. This is remarkable, considering its small size.
The Mijikendas’ reverence for the Kaya forest is far from unique.
Many of the world’s great areas of biodiversity are also sacred to the people who live there. Sadly, many of these sites are threatened by illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking, deforestation, climate change, natural resource mining, pollution, and the like.
“All the religious leaders reiterated that the Earth is [alive] and as stewards of [this planet] they felt a deep responsibility to protect it,” says Dekila Chungyalpa.
“The values within traditional faith systems are consistently ecological and based on a sense of kinship with all life on Earth.”
The unprecedented levels of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa for ivory and rhino horn at first glance appear to be motivated by religious belief.
Recent reports indicate that the Catholic Church in the Philippines and practising Buddhists in Thailand and China are actively complicit in the illegal ivory trade or unwittingly facilitate it.
The idea is that ivory as a carving material best symbolises purity and devotion.
These devotional markets are supplied in part by groups who smuggle the ivory from Africa through middleman countries such as Malaysia.
Illicit ivory has also found a market in Islamic prayer beads for Muslims and Coptic crosses for Christians in Egypt.
The nature of environmental threats especially in Africa has changed fundamentally in the past decade.
Heavily armed poaching gangs and international crime syndicates using sophisticated smuggling and trafficking tricks have taken over the market for high-value wildlife products.
The real market for ivory is among Asia’s nouveau riche and growing middle classes and is driven by status-conscious people who want to demonstrate or reinforce their elite status.
The demand for religious icons made of ivory or other wildlife products is a symptom of that larger trend and is being driven probably by that subset of the population.
The profits made from the killing of African rhinos, elephants, and Asian tigers are about $10 billion (about Sh870 billion) each year! It’s a trade run by international crime syndicates who benefit from the senseless killing of these innocent animals.
Tens of thousands of wild elephants are being killed each year, simply for their tusks, to meet the demand for ivory coming from China, Thailand, and other Asian countries.
All of this simply to feed a craze for luxury items and status symbols.
At first glance it might not seem obvious that religious communities could have a positive impact on criminal syndicates using sophisticated hi-tech equipment to poach wildlife and traffic their precious body parts in sub-Saharan Africa, but the impact on religion and their followers is profound.
The majority of people in the world identify themselves as religious.
It is estimated that over 80 per cent of people in the world embrace a spiritual faith, and collectively faith-related institutions make up the world’s third largest category of financial investors.
Therefore, it is clear that religious leaders can have a strong and positive influence on society.
“I think there are two levels in which religious leaders can help environmental efforts,” says Dekila Chungyalpa.
“The first is by leading their communities to make environmentally friendly and ethical choices, such as becoming energy efficient or eschewing illegal wildlife products.
The second is more nuanced — and that is to challenge the idea that a sustainable future is not attainable.
This requires a rethinking of what we mean by success, and what we mean by development, and the conversation must move past public.”
Dekila Chungyalpa grew up exploring the wilderness areas of western Sikkim in the Himalayas and later, after embracing Buddhism, experienced for herself how the power of religious belief can have profound and practical impacts on environmental and conservation thinking.
In 2007, she visited Bodh Gaya, a religious site and place of pilgrimage associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Gaya district in the Indian state of Bihar, where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment, and heard His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, give a talk on compassion towards animals.
Chungyalpa heard him speak about the most basic vow there is in Buddhism — a daily commitment made to benefit all sentient beings around us — and said that in his case, the contrast between this most essential of vows and his own action of eating meat became untenable and therefore he had been a vegetarian for a number of years.
He went on to ask his audience to consider being vegetarian for one meal, or a day, or a week and more.
Chungyalpa had tried to be vegetarian for a long time but consistently failed each attempt.
None of the extensive arguments she had with herself, whether it was based on health, climate change data, or ethics, worked. However, upon hearing Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s wise words, she suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, became a vegetarian.
For Chungyalpa, not only was it a spiritual awakening and commitment, but also an intellectual one.
Valuing all life on Earth
“I experienced first-hand how a religious leader could, with only a few words, influence thousands of people to change their behaviour and to feel happy and uplifted by that new commitment,” says Chungyalpa.
“That first-hand experience opened up a whole new way of approaching conservation, which had simply not occurred to me before.”
The core of an environmental ethos is valuing all life on Earth and thus trying to live in harmony with nature.
Every religion has scriptures that expound such a view.
The link between religious organisations, their members and nature conservation are nothing new.
The roots of modern day conservation in the United States, for example, are deeply spiritual.
In 1903, John Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to create the US Protected Area system, with the argument that this would protect the creation of God.
He saw nature and biodiversity as the best evidence of there being a benevolent God, and that faith-based argument got America Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt Rainier National Parks.
In recent times, in 1986, HRH Prince Phillip, then president of WWF, invited the leaders of the five major world religions to discuss how they could help save the natural world.
The result of this was the establishment of WWF partner organisation, the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Some international religious orientated NGO’s such as the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are also leading the way in nature conservation activities in Africa.
The more recent WWF Sacred Earth Programme has its roots not in Africa but Asia, where the greatest demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory emanates.
The Asian continent might be the main source of Africa’s wildlife crisis, but at the same instance it is providing models for practical solutions.
The programme was developed from a 2008 project to provide environmental training for Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalayas.
Following a series of successful pilot projects that showed positive local conservation results across the Himalayas and then replicating that model in Cambodia with the Ravadan Monks to protect the endangered Mekong dolphins, WWF decided to launch it as a full-fledged programme last year.
Projects in the Himalayas and in the Mekong directly engage Buddhist monastics to lead conservation projects.
In the Himalayas, for example, there are over 50 monasteries, under the auspices of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, that have developed their own individual environmental projects ranging from activities such as river clean-ups, re-forestation, environmental education, and climate change adaptation.
“We are currently working with Buddhist leaders in Thailand, and other parts of Asia, to build a common Buddhist stand on the issue of blood ivory”, says Dekila Chungyalpa.
“Elephants have symbolic status for Buddhists and there are several stories of Lord Buddha being born as a white elephant in a previous life. And, as several of the Buddhist leaders who we have met with have remarked, the philosophy of interdependence is supremely important in Buddhism.
It means that the basis of our existence is outside ourselves and we cannot survive without one another.”
Although Buddhism does not have any religious beliefs in the power of ivory, elephants are beloved figures in Buddhist mythologies and stories.
But Buddhism as a religion does not promote or even condone the specific use of ivory as a religious object.
Although it is far too early to say what positive and practical results that this collaboration between African faith groups and conservation will yield, especially in stemming the tide of elephant and rhino exterminations and the illegal trafficking of their body parts to Asia, it may be the only hope of saving the continent’s endangered species.
And Fr Charles Kwanya remains optimistic, arguing that there is an ancient heritage between Africans, nature and faith that cannot be ignored, but utilised to the fullest in such critical and desperate times.