Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body has issued the first ever fatwa, or religious edict, against the country’s rampant black market wildlife trade. Activists and conservation groups across the globe have praised the move, though largely symbolic, which effectively makes trafficking in endangered species a sin in Indonesia.
The Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) issued the fatwa to the country’s 200 million Muslims earlier this week.
“All activities resulting in wildlife extinction without justifiable religious grounds or legal provisions are haram [forbidden in Islam]. These include illegal hunting and trading of endangered animals,” Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, MUI’s secretary in charge of fatwas, told AFP. “Whoever takes away a life, kills a generation. This is not restricted to humans, but also includes God’s other living creatures, especially if they die in vain.”
While not legally binding, it offers spiritual guidelines for protecting some of Indonesia’s most threatened natural treasures. “It’s a divine binding,” Sholeh added.
While MUI stressed that the fatwa covers both individuals and the government, Jakarta rarely implements policy changes in direct response to a fatwa. However, an unnamed government official told AFP that the Forestry Ministry and the religious council would issue a joint announcement next week.
It is difficult to predict what kind of regulatory changes the fatwa could put in motion, as Indonesia’s economy relies on logging, palm oil plantations and other agricultural expansion – actions that create disastrous consequences for at-risk wildlife.
“Indonesia is a top source of timber and the palm oil used in everything from cookies to cleaning agents,” wrote The Wall Street Journal. “Demand for ivory and rhino horns used in some Chinese traditional medicines has also led to a rise in poaching.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 130 elephants have been killed in the central Sumatran province of Riau – where “slash-and-burn” techniques used to clear farmland are destroying ecosystems and generating choking haze in other ASEAN nations.
Tigers that once lived in Bali and Java are now only found in Sumatra. The Javan rhino, orangutan and the scaly pangolin are also facing extinction if the fatwa and current laws fail to curb illegal trade.
Current Indonesian law imposes a roughly $9,000 fine and up to five years in jail for individuals caught trafficking in protected animals.
MUI’s fatwa arrived less than a month after the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, which was held in London on February 14th (the same day that Malaysian restaurants were busted serving endangered species as part of a special Valentine’s Day menu). Indonesia was one of 46 nations involved in the meeting, which was chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Hague stressed the importance of CITIES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – as a “fantastic weapon in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.”
In Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, divine intervention may prove equally formidable.
“People can escape government regulation,” said Hayu Prabowo, the chairperson of MUI’s environment and natural resources body. “But they cannot escape the word of God.”