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.