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These People Are Using the Word of God to Save Animals

With no end in sight to the illegal wildlife trade, secular organizations are working with religious leaders to help combat poaching and sales of wild creatures.

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An icon made of elephant ivory is prepared for a religious procession in Malolos, in the Philippines.


Wildlife trafficking is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business that is notoriously tough to combat. A lack of money, political corruption, and weak laws have forced those who seek to shut down the illegal trade in thousands of wild animals to get creative—rhino horns have been sawed off to make the animals unappealing to poachers, turtle shells have been carved to make it easier for the authorities to trace the reptiles, and, as Wildlife Watch reported in October, dogs are even learning to skydive to help rangers track down poachers faster.

Another weapon in the arsenal: appeals to the faithful. With the illegal wildlife trade growing rapidly in recent years, secular organizations have been turning to religious institutions and their leaders to help in the fight against wildlife crime. The goal is for faith leaders to educate their followers about the harmful effects of poaching animals and buying illicit wildlife products.

It makes sense, given that scriptures of the world's religions call for valuing life and living in harmony with nature. Buddhism teaches that all beings are connected. Catholicism dictates that wildlife should be cultivated and safeguarded. Islam says that humans have a responsibility to protect nature for Allah.

And religious leaders wield enormous power. More than 80 percent of people worldwide follow one faith or another. The global religious community owns 7 percent of the planet’s land and represents the world’s third largest category of financial investors.

Religion also imposes psychological pressures that can lead followers to change their behavior. “People can escape government regulations, but they cannot escape the word of God,” Hayu Prabowo, chair of the Council of Ulama, Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, told National Geographic last March.

Dekila Chungyalpa, the founder of Sacred Earth, a pilot project run by the World Wildlife Fund, says that faith leaders have clout within their communities that others don’t. “Most of the people we’re trying to reach to attempt a change in attitude aren’t entrusted to listening to laws and scientific organizations,” she says. “Religious leaders can influence people very personally and at a much larger community level.”

Sacred Earth, launched in 2009, grew out of a project that provided environmental training for Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalaya and is one of several entities that have sought to enlist religious groups in doing right by the natural world.

Another is the U.K.-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. In 2012 the organization helped orchestrate an unprecedented event in which 50 religious leaders from Africa signed pledges to call for the end of the illegal wildlife trade. The group also works in Indonesia to implement the fatwa, or edict, against wildlife trafficking issued in 2014 by the country's top Muslim clerical body in response to concerns over the deterioration of the nation’s ecosystems. (See also: “Muslim Council Issues Fatwa Against Poaching”)

In some cases, though, faith-based action stems from religion’s direct role in driving the illegal wildlife trade. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, for example, called upon Filipino clergy last year to refuse gifts made of ivory. That followed a National Geographic investigation that revealed the extent to which Catholicism and Buddhism feed demand for the material. (Related: “Pope Francis Pushes for Crackdown on Ivory Trafficking”)

And the men of South Africa’s Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church, a traditionalist Zulu church, began using faux leopard skins in their religious ceremonies after conservationists accused them of wearing furs from poached leopards and introduced the church to a synthetic alternative.

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These Shembe men, members of South Africa's Nazareth Baptist Church, wear leopard skin—which symbolizes pride and loyalty—during a religious ceremony. Concerned about declining leopard numbers, many followers have made the switch to faux leopard skin.


Chungyalpa says it’s not difficult to pique religious leaders’ interest in environmental issues. “I never had a problem with religious leaders denying or declining an invitation to care about the Earth,” she says, noting that “the challenge can be when the issue we want them to work on might not be a top priority.” She points out that when her team first approached religious leaders in Africa, at first they cared more about throwing their weight behind fighting climate change than protecting wildlife.

The Challenge of Measuring Impact

But whether all this pledging and preaching has actually helped prevent wildlife trafficking remains an open question. That’s because it’s expensive and difficult to quantify whether any method, including the involvement of religious leaders, results in behavior change, says Crawford Allan, North American regional director of TRAFFIC, a subsidiary of the World Wildlife Fund that monitors the illegal wildlife trade.

“There’s been really little investment in understanding how you change behavior and how you measure that behavior change with a level of rigor that gives you confidence the methodology you’re using gets the right results,” he says.

Chantal Elkin, of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, also thinks that evaluating behavior change can be tricky. But she’s seen shifts in attitudes toward wildlife when the religious community takes on environmental issues—and that’s a positive step, she says. Elkin notes how in northwest Cambodia, for instance, villagers began volunteering to help Buddhist monks educate suspected poachers about the impact of cutting down trees illegally, a project her organization worked on.

“One of the drivers of the wildlife trade, everyone agrees, is people’s attitude toward nature and wildlife, and how they value wildlife,” she says. “Religious leaders have something that the secular world doesn’t have—a fundamental understanding of what drives people.”

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

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