Religious Communities: Partners in Countering Wildlife Trafficking

Combating wildlife trafficking likely brings to mind images of park rangers confronting poachers, customs officials scrutinizing goods being transported across borders, law enforcement officers monitoring illicit financial transactions or identifying organized criminal networks, or wildlife advocacy organizations promoting awareness and conservation efforts. While these are essential parts of comprehensive efforts to limit wildlife trafficking, religious groups also play an important, yet often unrecognized role.

Many religious communities have at their core an ethos of stewardship that values the creatures and biodiversity of the world. Religious leaders and institutions have a unique voice in their communities to inspire social and behavioral change, and many are stepping up to be part of the solution to wildlife trafficking. We see religious actors from various traditions mobilizing grassroots religious networks to promote the protection of wildlife, monitor poaching, and resist smuggling. 

A pangolin crawls atop bags wrapping other pangolins during a news conference on wildlife rescue in Bangkok, Thailand Saturday, May 26, 2012. [AP File Photo]

Recently, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs co-hosted an event with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs that brought together policymakers and leaders in conservation with religious organizations to discuss productive avenues for engagement of religious communities in combating wildlife trafficking. The meeting also included representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Participants discussed the intersection of wildlife trafficking with other efforts to counter pressing challenges such as organized crime, global health epidemics, unequal economic development, and violent extremism. They spoke frankly about the ways in which religious practices or actors may increase demand for wildlife trafficking because some religious devotional objects, icons, or traditional medicine can contain trafficked goods.

Confiscated stockpile of ivory, rhinoceros horns, and sea turtle shells is burned in Mozambique, July 7, 2015 [U.S. Embassy Maputo Photo]

The meeting highlighted initiatives engaging a wide spectrum of religious communities -- including Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities, as well as leaders of indigenous religious traditions and practitioners of traditional medicine. Statements from religious leaders, notably Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si which highlighted the importance of wildlife conservation, have raised awareness internationally of the importance of protecting our natural world. The Indonesian Council of Ulama took an unprecedented step of issuing a fatwa (edict) against illegal wildlife trafficking which is currently being disseminated locally through religious training material. Earlier this year, Malaysia’s Muslim clerics launched a similar initiative. 

A giraffe on the outskirts of Nairobi, in Kenya. Food supply and poaching have led to a substantial decline in giraffe populations numbers in Africa.  [AP Photo]

Although existing best practices for combating wildlife trafficking exist in all parts of the globe, there is more work to be done to engage religious groups in these efforts. Those religious communities and organizations that have incorporated environmental stewardship into the stories of their missions and lived practices offer inspiration for their members and for the whole of society. To be successful in fighting illicit wildlife trafficking, they must continue to be part of the conversation. 

About the Author: Shaun Casey serves as the U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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A member of the Hindu Council of Africa leads a prayer with religious leaders of different faiths around a pile of charred elephant ivory at a site in Nairobi National Park. [AP Photo]
Posted by Shaun Casey
December 29, 2016


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