Q&A: A Kenyan Priest Talks About His Commitment to Saving Wildlife

Father Charles Odira challenges the faithful to become stewards of the natural world.

Two members of an antipoaching team guard a northern white rhino, one of only eight left in the world, on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in July 2011.

Shocked by the escalating slaughter of rhinos and elephants in Kenya, Fr. Dr. Charles Odira, 42, who heads the Commission for Pastoral and Lay Apostolate at the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, joins a growing number of religious leaders taking a stand against wildlife crime. (See "First-Ever Fatwa Issued Against Wildlife Trafficking.")

Moved by the sight of butchered carcasses lying in the open grasslands, he says we must all mobilize to protect God's gifts to nature.

Odira traces his love of nature to when he was a boy in western Kenya. He adopted birds, kept a garden, and planted trees that, he says, exist today.

He studied for the priesthood in Kenya and was ordained in 2000. Three years later he left for the Pontifical University Urbiana, in Rome, Italy, where he earned a doctorate in missiology (the study of the church's missionary work, which can encompass theology, history, anthropology, and geography).

About three years ago he began going to religion and conservation conferences, which led him to become more involved in wildlife and environmental protection.

What initiatives are you taking to conserve wildlife and the environment?

I'm mobilizing people, our church, and other faiths to take interest in conservation. I'm raising awareness that conserving the environment and protecting the animals is also serving God. This is rooted in our doctrines, our scriptures, [our] social teachings.

Therefore, we're supposed to be stewards, not destroyers. It is from this perspective we're making people understand and take this as divine obligation.

We have trained some priests and lay leaders in the wildlife zones about the need and value of conserving the wildlife and the environment. They are now educating the communities. From this training, every Sunday or in evangelization gatherings, conservation is always stressed as everyone's responsibility. (Read "Blood Ivory" in National Geographic magazine.)

Why appeal to people of faith?

Faiths have the capacity to reduce or even stop poaching, because they are about people's attitudes, their cultural and religious values. These values are close to people's hearts. In every religion there is a creator—a supreme being responsible for creation. It is believed [that] the creatures were not created by humans.

I feel if we targeted this belief—I must say there [is] no other way of doing this, other than through our religion, scriptures, and doctrines—we will turn things around and create a paradigm shift. The religious leaders have the structures and the moral authority to do this. If we use this opportunity to tell the people, and urge them commit to conservation, then a big impact will be created. (Read "United States Tightens the Noose on the Ivory Trade.")

What do you think is fueling the increased killing of rhinos and elephants?

We have come to learn through workshops [that] there is big demand for the rhino horns and ivory in eastern Asian countries. We know while illegal trade in these items thrives in black markets there, religion is also playing a big part.

We have heard that in China, Thailand, and Philippines, religious figures prefer precious worship items carved from ivory. These include statues and goddesses. This creates a big demand, and if this has been the tradition, then it's not easy for them to accept other alternatives.

Of course, they believe [that killing] elephants to provide tusks for religious purposes is contributing to evangelization. In that case, it will be a lesser evil for them if an elephant dies in Africa for them to get the material.

Is there an African religious leaders' response to Asian religious ivory demand?

We have held some discussions about the problem. Recently we had roundtable discussions in Norway during a religion and conservation meeting, where the Asian religious leaders were invited. We're going to have another discussion in another conference in Japan in June. (Related: "In Global First, Philippines to Destroy Its Ivory Stock.")

Our aim is to make Asian religious leaders understand [that] the elephants are dying illegally for them to get ivory, and that's a sin before God. Their line of thought is [that] the elephant donates [its] tusks saying, Let me die so that you can worship. This is what we're targeting to change. We're telling them this is not true because God cannot create and [also] allow people to destroy so that he can be worshipped. But we have to convince the leaders, since they've all along believed this. This involves changing their religious worldview. For us, this [means] long-term dialogue and engagement. It is striking that religion is contributing to blood ivory.

What are some challenges you see?

Wildlife-human conflict remains a major challenge. Communities view some wild animals as very dangerous since they stray into farms and destroy crops and kill people. This makes it a challenge to ask them to protect the wildlife, but as faiths and churches, we aim to change these attitudes.

We also fear [that] some people in leadership benefit from poaching. So it becomes difficult to stop it, even with the law.

There is also the issue of Chinese partnerships. Those are cordial, and we hope they can be used to initiate dialogue to end the problem. The partnership[s] may also push poaching further, with support of the higher authorities, due to road projects, soft loans. We pray the latter does not happen.

Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, who reports on politics, religion, the environment, and wildlife, among other topics.