It’s Time for Religious Leaders To Start Preaching for the Environment

Stories from New Scientist.
Feb. 9 2013 8:47 AM

God’s Green Earth

Religious leaders can help stop wildlife crime.

Asian elephant in the Everland Zoo.
Tens of thousands of wild elephants are being killed each year to meet the demand for ivory

Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

Can spiritual leaders guide their flocks to be stewards of the Earth? Dekila Chungyalpa is founder and director of the Sacred Earth program for WWF, the international conservation organization. She says religious values are often consistent with conservation efforts, and it’s time for religious leaders to start preaching for the environment.

Curtis Abraham: What is the Sacred Earth program?
Dekila Chungyalpa: We are trying to provide faith leaders and religious institutions with a platform on which they can build conservation messages and lead environmental change. It developed from a 2008 project that provided environmental training for Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalayas. Following a series of successful pilot projects, we launched it as a fully-fledged program last year.

CA: Where do religion and conservation intersect?
DC: Mapping great areas of remaining biodiversity around the world reveals that many are also sacred sites. In several of these areas, we know that religious belief has been one of the major factors for preserving them. For example, Sagamatha National Park in Nepal is sacred to the Sherpa people, and the Kaya Forest in Kenya is sacred to the Mijikenda. In both cases, this status has led to their preservation. But sadly, many sacred sites are threatened by illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, climate change, natural resource mining, pollution, and so on.

CA: So how can religious leaders make a difference?
DC: More than 80 percent of people in the world identify themselves as religious. Collectively, faith-related institutions make up one of the largest categories of financial investors and operate more than half of all schools globally. It is clear that religious leaders can have a strong influence. In sheer numbers, they are a major stakeholder for conservation.

I think there are two levels on which they can help environmental efforts. The first is by leading their communities to make 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.

CA: How do different religious beliefs fit with conservation ideals?
DC: The core of an environmental ethos is valuing all life on Earth and trying to live in harmony with nature. Every religion has scriptures that expound such a view. In Genesis in the Bible, God speaks to Noah and establishes a covenant between him and every living creature on the ark. In the Koran, there is specific mention of all animals, including creatures that fly with wings, which are precious to Allah. Hinduism also has a deep reverence for nature, for different wild animals who have symbolic power and subscribe to the Dharmic law of Ahimsa, non-violence, as a way of life.

CA: How do you get religious leaders involved?
DC: In September, the U.K.-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation held a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. It was to celebrate Christian, Hindu, and Islamic faith groups in Africa that are launching long-term plans for conservation. As part of the conference, we hosted a safari to Nairobi National Park. There we prayed around a pile of charred elephant ivory at a memorial site where hundreds of tusks were burned in 1989 to draw attention to the illegal killing of elephants.

With the ARC we also launched the first ever partnership with faith leaders across Africa against wildlife trafficking and the slaughter of elephants and rhinos. Fifty religious leaders signed pledges committing to the cause. I just learned that one preacher is writing a liturgy specifically on the protection of wildlife.

CA: Does your program also reach out to religious leaders in Asia, the source of most of the demand for illegal ivory and rhino horn?
DC: Yes, we are working with Buddhist leaders in Thailand and other parts of Asia, encouraging them to preach compassion for African elephants and other species and call for an end to the use of illegal wildlife products. We are also developing a campaign that educates the public to reduce the demand for blood ivory driven by local cultural norms.

CA: There are beliefs that rhino horn can be used to treat hangovers—or even cancer. Who spreads these ideas?
DC: There is a misconception in Asia right now, particularly in Vietnam, that rhino horn can be used to cure cancer. We have seen it advertised as traditional medicine. There is no historical or scientific basis for such a claim. It is false advertising, and criminal from my point of view. Not only are the traders and sellers causing the indiscriminate slaughter of African rhinos, they are giving false hope to people who are desperately sick.

CA: What is the scale of illegal killing?
DC: 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. The profits made from the killing of African rhinos and elephants and Asian tigers are about $10 billion each year. This is not local poaching, it is wildlife crime. It is a trade run by international crime syndicates who benefit from the senseless killing of these animals. All of this simply to feed a craze for luxury items and status symbols.

CA: What is the scale of illegal killing?
DC: 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. The profits made from the killing of African rhinos and elephants and Asian tigers are about $10 billion each year. This is not local poaching, it is wildlife crime. It is a trade run by international crime syndicates who benefit from the senseless killing of these animals. All of this simply to feed a craze for luxury items and status symbols.

CA: Are Asian elephants and rhinos also poached for their ivory and horns?
DC: Yes. The greater one-horned rhino is the most robust of the three Asian rhino species but still classified as vulnerable. Unfortunately, we believe that there are no more than 50 Javan rhinos in the wild today and fewer than 250 Sumatran rhinos, as a result of rampant poaching and habitat loss.

With fewer than 35,000 individuals, the Asian elephant is classified as endangered and is gravely threatened due to habitat loss and poaching. Elephants are migratory mammals and, in the face of rapidly growing human populations, are becoming more and more isolated in small pockets across Asia. We think faith leaders can play a crucial role in reinforcing the importance of coexistence between humans and wildlife.

CA: Is the Sacred Earth approach working?
DC: In the Himalayas, we went from simply training monastic representatives on environmental issues to helping establish an association called Khoryug of more than 50 Buddhist monasteries that have developed their own projects. These include river clean-ups, reforestation, environmental education, and climate change adaptation. In India, the monks of Tergar Monastery have planted 600 trees on degraded lands. In Nepal, the nuns of Thrangu Tara Abbey have established recycling programs.

In some of the most fragile and ecologically important landscapes in the Himalayas, other monasteries have planted organic gardens, set up solar power stations, and switched from firewood to gas for cooking. Their leadership radiates into the community. By installing solar panels for water heating, for example, a monastery not only demonstrates its commitment to energy efficiency, but also confirms a new climate reality.

CA: Are there any similar initiatives under way in North America?
DC: In the United States, we are exploring a partnership with the Washington National Cathedral and other religious communities on the role of faith in climate change issues. With record droughts, floods, and fires in the last year alone, climate change impacts are evident all across the United States. The conversation we need to be having now is about building resilience for communities and reducing our carbon footprint.

CA: Once WWF gets these initiatives started, is it down to religious leaders to keep them going?
DC: We see ourselves as technical consultants who can help provide the capacity needed—but the leadership and decision-making has to come from faith leaders themselves. It is the only way such a partnership can work and be fruitful in the long term.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

See more in New Scientist’s gallery: "Visions of heaven on Earth: Sacred sites in danger."

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