By Bradnee Chambers
They say religion doesn’t mix well with certain subjects, but in the case of conservation and religion this old rule of thumb doesn’t seem to apply.
Conservationists have been increasingly aligning with different religious groups to further their work, either by promoting conservation projects on the ground, or by working with religious groups to promote good conservation principles to their flocks of followers.
High in the Tibetan Plateau where some of the last snow leopards roam, Buddhist monks regularly send out patrols to ensure that the highly endangered cats are not taken by poachers. According to George Schaller, who works for a conservation group called Panthera, Buddhism has as a basic tenet – the love, respect and compassion for all living beings. For the last 3,000-4,000 snow leopards this is welcomed help to ensure their continued existence.
In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, Islamic clerics working with WWF have issued a fatwa, a code of law under which violations are considered immoral and forbidden, to protect endangered animals. This fatwa could play an important role in protecting species such as the Asian Elephant sought after for its ivory, and even aquatic mammals such as dugongs, dolphins and whales.
Pope Francis, who took his name from the St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, has on many occasions made strong statements on the subjects of climate change and nature protection. For example, upon meeting the Ecuadoran President, he is reported to have advised him to “take good care of creation. St. Francis wanted that. People occasionally forgive, but nature never does. If we don’t take care of the environment, there’s no way of getting around it.”
Some conservation groups say that there is still more to be done as there are links between the ivory trade and religious artefacts such as crosses and rosaries.
The Shembe Church of South Africa, officially a Baptist group but deeply immersed in Zulu customs recently agreed to replace its leopard and animal hides seen as a symbol of wealth and prestige with faux skins.
Environmental organisations are increasingly seeing the advantage of working with different faiths to protect endangered wildlife. Most of the largest religions promote harmony with nature.
Christianity teaches that humans are meant to be stewards over God’s creation with a moral obligation to protect nature. Hindus believe that the Divine is everywhere and we are not separate from nature. Muslims have many elements in their religion advocating environmental protection. Over 80 percent of the world population follow one religion or another so the potential alliance is potentially very powerful.
In 1995, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh recognising the common goals between religion and conservation, founded ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. The group based in the UK works with religious groups to develop environmental programmes founded on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices. GreenFaith does similar work promoting social and environmental justice in the U.S.
The alliance between religion and conservation couldn’t come at a better time, because the threats to international wildlife have never been greater. The Convention on Migratory Species is one of the few global wildlife conventions in place; it protects species moving between countries, but finds its tasks increasingly difficult to carry out with regard to the most iconic animals in the world.
Big cats, dolphins, whales, sharks, gorillas, elephants, bats, birds of prey and even monarch butterflies which have roamed the Earth for millennia are in danger either from direct threats such as poaching, illegal trade, overfishing, bycatch or loss of their habitat. Then there are indirect threats from climate change affecting their breeding and feeding patterns.
In the face of these threats unprecedented in human history, conservationists are exploring new avenues to protect these species. So why not religion? Conservation and wildlife organisations see the opportunity. Religion is not a threat to wildlife, but it could be a major ally for wildlife conservation because it can change and influence our fundamental values.
A question often asked is,why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.
Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, believes wildlife conservation is a goal that religions must take on.