Watch a National Geographic video on the connection between religions and ivory.
Religious leaders are the latest recruits in the war by conservationists against those slaughtering thousands of elephants and rhinos across Africa each year. The World Wildlife Fund on Friday announced a partnership with various religious groups — some of which are themselves fueling the crisis by allowing religious artifacts to be made from ivory.
"Halting wildlife trade is a moral issue," Dekila Chungyalpa, WWF’s Sacred Earth program director, said in a statement announcing the partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
The partnership was sealed Thursday night inside Kenya's Nairobi National Park, where three dozen religious leaders from nine African countries gathered amid rhinos, zebras, buffalo and ostriches all within site of the skyline of Kenya's capital.
Standing before a pile of charred elephant ivory as dusk covered the surrounding savannah, Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders grasped hands and prayed. The remains were from a 1989 burn of confiscated ivory that Kenya set on fire to draw attention to the slaughter.
"We are the ones who are driving God's creatures to extinction," said Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Britain-based alliance. "We are the ones who can change the way Africa works."
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.
Ben Curtis / AP
Religious leaders of different faiths pray around a pile of charred elephant ivory at Kenya's Nairobi National Park on Thursday.
Moreover, 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.
"Faith leaders are the heart and backbone of local communities," Chungyalpa noted. "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.'"
Ben Curtis / AP
Elephants gather at dusk on March 25 to drink at a watering hole in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park.
It's not known what kind of impact religious leaders may be able to make, but Mike Watson, the chief executive of 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."
The significance of religious icons was underscored by National Geographic magazine, which in its October issue traced how Catholics in the Philippines and Buddhists in Thailand make up part of the demand for ivory.
Chungyalpa said WWF is working with Buddhists 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," she noted.
Brent Stirton / National Geographic
A master ivory carver works on the head of a Madonna in his studio outside Manila, Philippines. He prefers carving wood but says that ivory has a special quality he finds irresistible — "much high prices."
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 added. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed by poachers each year.
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
More world stories from NBC News:
- Pakistan cops open fire on film protesters on 'Day of Love'
- US soldier who refused to go back to Iraq arrested on return from Canada
- Australian deputy PM: 'Cranks and crazies' in GOP threaten US economy
- Iran seen behind cyber attacks on US banks
- White House: Libya consulate siege that killed four was 'terrorist attack'
- Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi calls for release of Russian punk band Pussy Riot
- Stay informed: Sign up for our newsletter