Saving the African Elephant: A Call to Spiritual Responsibility

The Society for Conservation Biology‘s Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative released a statement last week calling upon the world’s religious leaders to stop using elephant ivory.  As the statement notes, “In addition to the ethical concerns raised by the possible extinction of elephant populations or species, the ivory trade is associated with considerable bloodshed for humans as well as elephants.”  The Collaborative concludes that “the requirements of religion and conservation should be and, indeed, can be complementary in reaching the best possible outcome whereby religious faith is respected and the future of elephants safeguarded.” 

It is a hopeful message.  Along with his colleagues Stephen Mufutau Awoyemi, Founding Chair of the Collaborative, has also written the following essay for A Voice for Elephants.

Elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory for millennia. Most recently this slaughter has been exacerbated through the use of aircraft, automatic weapons, and explosive devices.  At the current rate of kill, very few elephants will remain in the wild, and the suffering of elephants, their families, and their habitats has been immense. Unfortunately, some religious communities are complicit in this massacre because ivory is used to create objects of spiritual veneration.

A new hope for mitigating the slaughter of elephants is emerging from faith-based communities all over the world who are striving to respond to the accelerated rate of species extinction and other ecological issues from the perspectives of their traditions and practices. Although the effects of this relatively new movement are yet to be empirically determined, there is a pervasive spread of environmental consciousness within approximately 90% of the global population that claims affiliation with the world religions.

Graphic reports from Asia about the illicit trade in ivory to satisfy the demands of religious communities for religious artifacts made from the tusks of elephants is garnering concern and opening an opportunity for leaders of religious and conservation biology communities to work together towards obliterating the religious use of ivory in Asia.

At the root of all religions are the same basic principles.

Live simply. Act with compassion. Be kind to one another.

Nowhere does any religion say that we should destroy

the very thing that gives us life. So, I feel quite confident

saying that from a religious point of view, we must

conserve all life and protect Earth.


The position statement on the use of ivory for religious objects developed by the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative (RCRC) of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group recommends three ways in which scientists should contribute to this goal [see]:

  • Provide awareness and educational tools for use by religious leaders to reorient their adherents about religious ivory and to elicit an empathic response on the plight of the African elephant.
  • Encourage religious leaders to issue public statements on the severity of the ivory trade and the direct and negative impact that the use of ivory has on elephant populations and local communities and, where appropriate, on the relevant teachings of their religions concerning the need to exercise proper stewardship of creation.
  • Urge religious leaders to issue statements to their followers discouraging the use of ivory for religious artifacts (e.g., statues or amulets) and instead use other material (e.g., fiberglass, wood) as substitutes and seek to engage religious leaders in consultations concerning which materials are most suitable from a conservation, as well as a religious, standpoint.

Above all, the Catholic Church’s position and its teaching on the unjustified violence toward animals is clear and simple in its general principles and can be summarized as follows:

Creation is entrusted to humanity to be cultivated and safeguarded as a precious gift received from the Creator and therefore should not be destroyed, treated violently, or exploited but rather treated with great responsibility toward the creatures themselves and toward future human generations so that they might be able to enjoy these essential and marvelous goods. The Pope’s interventions on environmental awareness have become more and more frequent in recent years, following the worsening of the environmental crisis and the raising awareness in humanity’s impact on the environment.

— Father Lombardi, Director Vatican Press Office

Through this position statement and recommendations, scientists are urging religious leaders to influence their followers to help protect Africa’s elephants by halting their demand for ivory artifacts. Scientists desire to work with faith communities by informing them about the means and effects of the ongoing slaughter of the African elephants, the destruction of Africa’s heritage, and the threat to all species of Earth.

Stephen Mufutau Awoyemi, Jame Schaefer, Andrew G. Gosler, Bryan Hugill, Janice Lee

Stephen Mufutau Awoyemi is Founding Chair of the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative (RCRC) of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG), Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). The RCRC is a committee of the RCBWG tasked with the goal of investigating, through empirical research, the role of religion in the quest for environmental conservation globally and translating results into policy action. The RCRC also proactively identifies societal problems as pertains to conservation that need policy action and through scientific research findings informs decision making and social change within the purview of religion and conservation.

A Tropical Biology Association Alumnus and Earthwatch Fellow, Stephen has served as volunteer for the SCB for a decade, collaboratively leading the crafting of several policy statements on behalf of the society with recent statements in the field of religion and conservation (SCB Position on the Religious Practice of Releasing Captive Wildlife for Merit and SCB Position on the use of Ivory for Religious Objects).  In 2007, he co-founded the RCBWG of the SCB along with Tom Baugh (then founding President) and others. He published an editorial in Conservation Biology in 2008 titled ‘The Role of Religion in the HIV/AIDS Intervention in Africa: A Possible Model for Conservation Biology’ and was lead author of a book chapter [Global Efforts to Bridge Religion and Conservation: Are they Really Working?] in Topics in Conservation Biology edited by Tony Povilitis and published by InTech in 2012.

Janice Lee is finishing her PhD at the Applied Ecology and Conservation Group in ETH Zurich university. She works on the environmental and socioeconomic outcomes of Indonesian smallholder oil palm production but has broad interest in applied conservation including the role of religion in conservation biology.

Andrew Gosler is University Research Lecturer in Ornithology and Conservation at Oxford University, where he holds a joint appointment in the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (Department of Zoology) and the Institute of Human Sciences (School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography), and is Fellow in Human Sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford. Development of his joint post came about through his interests in scientific ornithology and ethno-ornithology, both of which he considers essential for effective conservation action and advocacy. He was awarded the Union Medal of the British Ornithologists’ Union in 2012 in recognition of his contribution to ornithology.

His involvement with RCRC reflects his understanding that full engagement of the global human community with conservation requires expression of the stewardship ethic that is deeply rooted in human consciousness through Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the scriptures, practices and traditions of the eleven global faiths followed collectively by six billion people.

Jame Schaefer (Ph.D. in Religious Studies) is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA), where she directs the Interdisciplinary Minor in Environmental Ethics, convenes the Albertus Magnus Circle, and serves as faculty advisor to Students for an Environmentally Active Campus. Her research, teaching, and publications center on constructively relating theology to the natural sciences and technology with special attention to religious foundations for ecological ethics. Among her publications are Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts (Georgetown University Press, 2009) and Confronting the Climate Crisis: Catholic Theological Perspectives (Marquette University Press, 2011).




  1. elephant highway
    May 24, 2013, 3:10 am

    African Elephant I like it .

  2. John
    February 12, 2013, 7:56 pm

    Religion? As a solution for this? Must be a joke

  3. Subhash
    February 5, 2013, 3:05 pm

    Have you experienced the wails of a baby elephant whose mother was slaughtered by AkK47? I have. My heart still bleeds

  4. Subhash
    Sittingbourne, UK
    February 5, 2013, 2:32 pm

    Religion is the bane,for this slaughter. I grew up in Tanzania,my love for this intelligent species,is based on personal experience. Vatican must come out strongly,stopping the icon making in Philippines. Totally ban the trade.

  5. Valarie
    February 3, 2013, 4:43 pm

    I hope & pray this elephant massacre ends soon!!
    It’s heart wrenching to see pictures of the elephants face hacked off for IVORY! Sick world we live in 🙁

  6. camila fontoura
    February 3, 2013, 2:30 pm

    pain :'(

  7. LAMINI Petra von Zezschwitz
    Karma Kagyu Lineage, Germany
    February 3, 2013, 2:30 pm

    For the Good of All Beings