(Photo: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)
A Roman Catholic priest from Kenya is mobilizing churches and believers to tackle the growing slaughter of rhinos and elephants, arguing that humans are supposed to help protect, not destroy, animals and the environment.
"I'm raising awareness that conserving the environment and protecting the animals is also serving God. This is rooted in our doctrines, our scriptures, [our] social teachings," Fr. Dr. Charles Odira, who heads the Commission for Pastoral and Lay Apostolate at the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview with National Geographic.
"Therefore, we're supposed to be stewards, not destroyers. It is from this perspective we're making people understand and take this as divine obligation."
Kenya Wildlife Service said in a statement last week that although the country has been blessed with abundant natural resources and has an elephant population of over 30,000 and rhino population of 1,041, those populations are becoming increasingly vulnerable due to poaching.
"Poaching for this prized wildlife has become more organized, sophisticated and international in nature and is occurring across their ranges including in those areas that were hitherto considered safe havens," the agency reported.
It added that poachers are using sophisticated weaponry as well as silent poaching methods that make it difficult for rangers to detect. In 2013, 59 rhinos and 302 elephants were killed due to poaching, compared to 30 rhinos and 384 elephants in 2012.
"We attribute the problem of poaching in Kenya and the rest of African range states to growing demand and high prices being offered for rhino horn and elephant ivory in the Far-East countries as ready market continue to spur illegal sale of ivory and rhino horn," KWS added.
Odira, who has spoken at religion and conservation conferences, said that he is helping train priests and lay leaders in wildlife conservation who in turn are educating entire communities.
"Faiths have the capacity to reduce or even stop poaching because they are about people's attitudes, their cultural and religious values. These values are close to people's hearts. In every religion there is a creator – a supreme being responsible for creation. It is believed [that] the creatures were not created by humans," the priest continued.
"I feel if we targeted this belief – I must say there [is] no other way of doing this, other than through our religion, scriptures, and doctrines – we will turn things around and create a paradigm shift. The religious leaders have the structures and the moral authority to do this. If we use this opportunity to tell the people, and urge them commit to conservation, then a big impact will be created."
Odira noted that some of the main challenges conservation efforts are facing involve wildlife-human conflicts, with some communities viewing wild animals as dangerous to their farms and lives.
"This makes it a challenge to ask them to protect the wildlife, but as faiths and churches, we aim to change these attitudes," he said.
Rhinos in particular are facing the threat of extinction in a number of African countries, and Christians have been urged to do more to help God's creations.