Hinduism respects all animals and lives. An elephant has great significance to Hindus. The Elephant is an embodiment of the Hindu diety-Lord Ganesh. He represents ‘perfect wisdom’ and is highly loved and worshiped by his devotees. Lord Ganesh is considered to be the ‘remover of obstacles’ and a ‘bestower of prosperity’. For Hindus, each part of the deity has a symbolic function. Lord Ganesh’s head itself symbolises the ability to acquire wisdom and knowledge, while his big ears bestow the patience to listen carefully. Lord Ganesh’s small eyes can behold the future and recognise truth, while his long trunk is able to sniff out good and evil. His big belly symbolises the ability to digest both the best and worst in life. The tiny mouse upon which Lord Ganesh rides symbolises the ability to move quickly and decisively.
In light of the upcoming meeting of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in late September, more than 26 interfaith leaders and organisations have written to EU Ministers of Environment on World Elephant Day and called for their support to protect African elephants. The EU holds the largest voting block at the CITES Conference of Parties and its position is crucial to the fate of several elephant protection CITES proposals.
The African Elephant Coalition, representing 70 percent of the African elephant range states, has put forward five proposals to advocate for the highest level of protection for the elephants under CITES. Their proposals include listing all African elephant populations under Appendix I, which prohibits all international commercial trade in ivory, calling for closure of domestic ivory markets and restricting the trade in live elephants to in situ conservation programs only. The European Commission has expressed reservations about, and opposition to, these proposals.
In the letter, the signers stated, “The duty to care for creation is present in religious teaching and sacred texts that span centuries, and in some cases, millennia. As a result, we consider ourselves the guardians of the wondrous diversity of nature that is a key part of God’s plan for creation.” They also remarked, “We, therefore, are both shocked and disappointed to learn of the European Commission’s opposition to the African elephant protection proposals as outlined in the July 1st Commission position paper.” Sanjay Jagatia-Director and Secretary General of the Hindu Council UK, one of the largest religious groups in the UK, said: “Today, no one can deny the plight of this magnificent animal. It is a shame that such a highly revered and regal animal is being hunted and abused across the world”.
Reasa Currier, strategic initiatives manager of the Faith Reach Program at The Humane Society of the United States, said: “We are on a trajectory to lose these majestic animals during our lifetimes if we sit idly by and do nothing. People of faith have a long tradition of advocating for protections for animals. In 19th century England, it was Christians who paved the way for the passage of the first animal protection law and formed the first animal protection organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. During a time when there is so much division, this letter demonstrates that people from all faiths are united in the belief that elephants have a unique role in creation and they are worthy of our protection.”
Iris Ho, wildlife manager at Humane Society International, said: “The poaching cruelty and extinction threat the African elephant is facing is not a concern solely confined to conservationists, animal advocates or wildlife officials. This letter underscores the solidarity that the interfaith community shares with the African elephant range states and the unity from all faiths in the belief that elephants have a unique role in our ecosystems and are worthy of our highest protection.”
In a speech in the Kenyan capital Nairobi last November, Pope Francis said: “Africa offers the world a beauty and natural richness which inspire praise of the Creator. Illegal trade in diamonds and precious stones and animal products, such as ivory trafficking and the relative killing of elephants, fuels political instability, organised crime and terrorism. This situation, too, is a cry rising up from humanity and the earth itself, one which needs to be heard by the international community.”
The clergy members, faith leaders and faith-based organisations that have signed on to this letter collectively represent hundreds of thousands of people across Europe.
Threats to elephants
Recent surveys in Africa show that elephant populations are falling dramatically across the continent. There has been a 61 percent population decline in the last three decades. Only less than half a million elephants are left across Africa. At the present killing rate, elephants could be gone from the wild in a few decades; in addition, we could see local extirpation in ten years in some areas.
From 2010 to 2012, 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. In Central Africa, between 2002 and 2013, 65 percent of the forest elephants were killed. According to the Great Elephant Census, poachers killed half of Mozambique’s elephants in five years while Tanzania lost a catastrophic 60 percent of its elephants during the same period.
The EU is the world’s largest exporter of pre-convention ivory— ivory acquired before the creation of CITES in 1976.
Between 2011 and 2014, member states reported seizures of around 4,500 ivory items reported as specimens and an additional 780 kg as reported by weight. Between 2003 and 2014, 92 percent of EU exports of pre-convention tusks went to China or Hong Kong.
The majority of ivory trafficking is destined for China or Southeast Asia. However, once smuggled ivory leaves Africa, their trafficking routes could go through Europe or the Middle East to reach Asia. Turkey, Germany, Switzerland or the United Arab Emirates are among the numerous airports that have seized or intercepted smuggled ivory from Africa.
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