NAIROBI, Kenya — Standing before a pile of charred elephant ivory as dusk covered the surrounding savannah, Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders grasped hands and prayed. Let religion, they asked, help "God's creatures" to survive.
Poachers are escalating their assault on Africa's elephants and rhinos, and conservationists warn that the animals cannot survive Asia's high-dollar demand for ivory tusks and rhino horn powder. Some wildlife agents, customs officials and government leaders are being paid off by what is viewed as a well-organized mafia moving animal parts from Africa to Asia, charge the conservationists.
Seeing a dire situation grow worse, the animal conservation group WWF is enlisting religious leaders to take up the cause in the hopes that religion can help save some of the world's most majestic animals.
"We are the ones who are driving God's creatures to extinction," said Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Britain-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
Palmer spoke during Thursday evening's prayer at a site in Nairobi National Park where Kenyan officials burned hundreds of ivory tusks in 1989 to draw attention to the slaughter of elephants. Although the park has no elephants, it hosts 221 rhinos.
"We are the ones who can change the way Africa works," Palmer said.
Dekila Chungyalpa, the director of WWF's Sacred Earth program, argues that the killing of elephants, rhinos and Asian tigers — the three animals WWF is most concerned about — is a moral issue. She said that conservationists are not doing well enough getting the anti-poaching message across, and that new strategies — such as religion — must be tried.
"Faith leaders are the heart and backbone of local communities. They guide and direct the way we think, behave and live our lives," she said, adding later: "I think this is the missing piece in conservation strategies. ... WWF can yell us much as we want and no one will listen to us, but a religious leader can say 'This is not a part of our values. This is immoral.'"
Three dozen religious leaders from nine African countries toured Nairobi National Park on Thursday, where they saw rhinos, zebras, buffalo and ostriches all within site of the skyline of Kenya's capital city.
One of the safari vans held a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Buddhist, which spawned efforts to create some sort of wildlife-themed religious joke. During a more serious conversation, Hamza Mutunu, a Muslim leader from Tanzania, argued for the animals.
"The general message is that taking care of the wildlife is part and parcel with our religion," he said. "We have a duty from the Prophet Mohammed. ... Taking care of wildlife is within our religion."
Preetika Bhanderi, who is with the Hindu Council of Africa, said: "Hindu's backbone is non-violence toward everything that has life. That means animals, and people, of course."
Charles Odira, a Catholic priest from Kenya, said religious leaders can help spread the message effectively given the moral authority and standing they have in African communities.
"Just as when we talk about Jesus Christ, when we say (from the pulpit) that animals are part of God's community, an impact will be made," he said.
Odira acknowledged the uphill fight even religious leaders have. Poachers can earn hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a rhino horn or elephant tusk. That money represents far more than they could earn after years of labor in the typical village job.
Mutunu, though, said that religious leaders of all faiths came together in Loliondo, Tanzania last year to fight against poaching. He said the effort has yielded dividends.
The poaching numbers are grim. The number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa has risen from 13 in 2007 to 448 last year, WWF says. Last year saw more large-scale ivory seizures than any year in the last two decades, it said. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed by poachers each year.
It's not known what kind of impact religious leaders may be able to make, but Mike Watson, the chief executive of the Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, said he and other conservationists will take any help they can get. Lewa saw one of its rhinos killed by poachers last week. The park had never suffered a rhino poaching death before 2009; it's had five of its rhinos killed since then.
"We know for a fact that one of the demands for ivory is religious icons in the Far East, and if pressure can be brought to bear to reduce that demand both locally here in Kenya through assistance by religious leaders, and overseas, it can only be a good step," he said. "It might take generations. If religious leaders can some way speed that process up, all well and good, but all efforts need to be on the table."Comment on this story
Africa is the supply side of the poaching equation, but the demand comes from Asia. Chungyalpa said WWF is working with Buddhists in Southeast Asia to try to educate Asian consumers about ivory and rhino horn powder. Yao Ming, the oversized basketball star from China, visited Kenya last month to raise awareness and make a film called "The End of the Wild."
Chungyalpa compared the effort to enlist religious leaders in the anti-poaching fight to how religious pressure helped end the era of apartheid in South Africa.
"There has to be a rising up of moral outrage," she said. "This is the spirit we're after."