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God and mammals: In Kenya, religious leaders pray to thwart poaching

African religious leaders toured Kenya's Nairobi National Park to learn about the urgent threat to elephants and rhinos from poaching – and to share ideas about using their moral clout to stop it.

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“There is the idea that some men go to the jungle to find meat for their family, and that is poaching,” Mr. Kumbo went on. “Now we see that it is organized criminals, and they are using helicopters, night-vision goggles, automatic weapons. It is as sophisticated as the drugs trade.” 

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Getting the message across

The challenge, says Hajjat A.K. Sebyala, a Muslim woman from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is making the value of conserving wildlife clear to people who live far from wilderness areas and have other priorities. 

“All this talk of elephants, of rhinos, what does this matter to people living in a city who are struggling for their daily bread?” she asks. 

She tells a story of giving fellow Muslims tree seedlings as gifts during Ramadan three years ago. Everyone complained, asking why she did not offer sugar or porridge, something they could eat immediately. 

“Then the second year,” she says, “people saw the sugar had gone but the tree was still providing fruit. They wanted more seedlings. By the third year, they were fighting over the seedlings.” 

Her point, she says, is that it is important first to “improve understanding” about any given issue – in this case, protecting the environment and helping to stop poaching. 

“You will only inspire positive and sustained action from people if they first understand,” she says. “Without understanding, there will be no change.” 

At that moment, the safari van, its roof popped up to allow better wildlife spotting, stopped suddenly. 

Isabella Nyabua, our Kenya Wildlife Service guide, pointed into the grasslands to the left, where a huge white rhino was ponderously ambling up from a mudbath. 

'This truly is God's work' 

“This is a gift. This truly is God’s work,” the Rev. Patrick Mureithi, the Kenyan Presbyterian in the car, said softly. Mrs. Sebyala stood and demanded pictures with the rhino in the distance, shooting questions at Ms. Nyabua. 

The excitement and the awe at seeing the animal in the wild held everyone in the vehicle rapt for several long minutes. “This is a gift,” repeated Mr. Mureithi. 

For Hamza Mtunu, director of the National Muslim Council of Tanzania, the job of all of the religious leaders attending the Nairobi event now is to try to convey that sense of spiritual awe to their congregations. 

“It’s important to change people’s perception that protecting the wildlife and the environment is purely a secular concern; it’s not,” he says. “In the Quran, we hear not just of the importance of protecting animals, but also of how it is wrong not to act if you see someone harming animals or the environment. 

“Yes, we learn that we are instructed to make use of the fruits of the environment," he continues. "But killing animals for their teeth or their horn, for trinkets, is that not pure mischief and against Scripture? That is what I will go home and talk about.” 

As the sun finally slipped beneath the horizon and the prayers at the ivory burning memorial hung in the air, one final promise was made by the leaders gathered there. 

“We as the people of God,” they said together, “promise to work together to protect the creation of God.” 

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