Conservationists will be hoping that Pope Francis speaks out against poaching and ivory trafficking during his upcoming visit. We have reason to feel confident that he will. Pope Francis has brought a new style of leadership to the Roman Catholic Church that has earned him respect among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
His forthright pronouncements on environmental issues such as climate change have revealed his deep scientific knowledge, as well as his love for the “irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty” of the natural world, and a profound awareness of the linkages between environmental and social justice.
For example in his Encyclical letter “On Care for Our Common Home”, he warns:
“Our Sister, Mother Earth …cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life”.
You do not have to a Catholic to be moved by these words.
On his visit to Kenya, there is a specific contribution that Pope Francis can make to combating ivory trafficking. He can speak out against religious practices that venerate objects made from the tusks of dead elephants. These are an integral component Buddhist and Hindu traditions and are still common among Catholics, for example in the Philippines. An article in National Geographic on the use of ivory for religious purposes quotes the head of Philippines customs police as saying: “The Philippines is a favourite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” Between 2005 and 2009, almost 20 tons of ivory were confiscated by customs in or on its way to the Philippines, representing a total of approximately 1,750 elephants.
Devotees believe that through their use of religious icons made of ivory they are honouring God. Ironically, the very opposite is true: they are complicit in the desecration of what Pope Francis calls the “infinite beauty and goodness” of His created world.
In his Encyclical, Pope Francis acknowledges his debt to his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached to birds and flowers. Pope Francis insists that it was not “naive romanticism” that led Saint Francis to venerate all of God’s creation in this way. In preaching to flowers, Saint Francis was celebrating the miracle of life. Surely, the difference between a flower that turns it head towards the sun and our ‘sophisticated’ human consciousness is only one of degree? Among higher animals, elephants in particular display qualities that fill us with wonder and awe. For example, elephants will go to extraordinary lengths to protect and care for an injured member of the herd.
Convinced that “we are all creatures of one family”, Saint Francis taught that “those who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity will deal likewise with their fellow man”. In modern language: a crime against nature is also – in a very real sense – a crime against humanity. Poaching destroys communities. Ivory trafficking is sustained by a web of violence and corruption. Moreover, in the words of our President in his inaugural address, poaching and trafficking are “economic sabotage”.
The Kenyan government has made great strides towards bringing poaching under control. Pope Francis’s Encyclical contains many insightful passages on the practical measures needed to protect this environment. But he also has an important message for Kenyans about the moral foundations of good governance. He warns: “
“In the absence of … sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species?”
Kenyans will make Pope Francis welcome. We should listen carefully to what he has to say.
Dr Paula Kahumbu OGW has a PhD in Ecology from Princeton University. She is a Kenyan conservationist and elephant expert. She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenya based NGO that is running the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with HE Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya.