Religious leaders in Africa are calling for an end to the illegal wildlife trade, a trend which wildlife protection agencies say is decimating the continent’s elephant and rhino populations.

While announcing their first ever wildlife conservation partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Alliance of Religions and Conservation, the more than 50 religious leaders said it was their moral obligation to protect and care for wildlife.

“We want to add our voice against the threats to the wildlife and degradation of the environment,” said the Rev. Patrick Maina from the Presbyterian Church of East Africa at a ceremony in Nairobi on Sept. 21. “Faith may be the key to turning the corner on this systematic destruction of wildlife and the environment.”

The leaders had on Sept. 20 undertaken a “wildlife prayer safari” to Nairobi National Park, where they paid tribute to all wildlife killed. They also prayed for the hundreds (according to the WWF) of park rangers who have died in the line of duty throughout Africa.

The interfaith prayers were said near a kiln where Kenyan officials have twice burned tons of illegally-obtained ivory. In 2011, President Mwai Kibaki torched ivory valued at $16 million.

“We are at a crisis point in wildlife trade,” said Dekila Chungyalpa, the WWF Sacred Earth Program director.

She said more animals were killed in 2011 and the largest scale of ivory seized the same year, than any other time in history. The seizures equaled 4,000 dead elephants with rhino poaching in South Africa increasing by 5000 per cent in the last five years.

“People think poaching is being carried out by the local community, the local hunter, traditional hunter, but that’s far from the reality. This is a crime that is being carried out by syndicates from around the world,” she said. “We are aware these syndicates are all the way from Asia to Africa. They are not only funding wildlife trade, but also conflict in Africa. They fund corruption and the weakening of governance laws.”

There is an increasing demand for ivory and rhino-horn icons in China, Vietnam and Thailand. In Vietnam, it’s believed rhino horns or items made from it can cure cancer and hangovers, and increase sexual abilities, according to Chungyalpa.

“In China people are buying what they think is high quality ivory,” she said. “It is easy for Buddhists to believe if one has a piece of ivory, it is of more sacred value, and this is one reason why we are appealing to religious communities to engage their people and raise awareness. Only religious leaders can say what is sacred and what is not.”

In the Philippines, Roman Catholics are using ivory to create crucifixes, figures of the Virgin Mary and other icons, Religion News Service reported on Sept. 18.

Although African faith leaders say greed is fuelling the demand for wildlife items more than the need for religious icons, some of them want government to boycott goods imported from the countries of destination.

“Can we convince ourselves, can we tell our governments to boycott item from these countries, so that they feel we are critically concerned?” queried Imam Iban Kasozi, a vice chairperson of Uganda Youth Muslim Assembly.