By Sara Schonhardt
The top Islamic authority in Muslim-majority Indonesia has issued a ground-breaking religious decree, or fatwa, against wildlife trafficking.
While it’s not the first time a religious authority has backed conservation – the Dalai Lama has campaigned against wildlife trafficking, too – it is particularly notable since Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other, is also home to some of the world’s greatest concentration of plant and animal species.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema released the fatwa earlier this week, forbidding Muslims from “killing, harming or hunting” such species and naming the poaching or illegal trade of endangered animals such as tigers, elephants or orangutans unlawful (haram).
“The fatwa says that we have to conserve endangered animals and maintain a balanced ecosystem,” said Hayu Prabowo, head of the council’s environment and natural resources body. He said the increasing number of conflicts between humans and animals were the impetus for the decree.
“There’s already a law protecting these animals,” he explained, but while people can escape the government’s law, they can’t escape “that of God’s.”
Indonesia is a top source of timber and the palm oil used in everything from cookies to cleaning agents. Demand for ivory and rhino horns used in some Chinese traditional medicines has also led to a rise in poaching.
Since 2004 nearly 130 elephants have been killed in the central Sumatran province of Riau, most of them due to conflicts with humans or poaching.
The Sumatran elephant population currently lies somewhere around 2,400, while the number the Sumatran orangutans is around 7,300. The World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF, estimates that its numbers could decline by 50% in the next 10 years if threats posed by habitat loss and hunting are not diminished.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, has issued hundreds of fatwas, which are not legally binding. They serve more as a form of guidance for Muslim adherents. But conservation groups say their efforts are likely to be given a boost from the spiritual backing.
“We count this as a good move that MUI has recognized the issues,” said Nyoman Iswarayoga, the Indonesia director of climate change and energy at the WWF, which has been in in discussions with the MUI to get them to support their conservation efforts.
While Mr. Iswarayoga expects the fatwa to help, he recognizes that adequate wildlife protection requires more than a spiritual call to arms.
“This comes as a complement to the legal instruments that have already been instituted by the government,” he said. But “loss of habitat due to deforestation, poaching,” those problems “require additional support not only in country but also from other countries,” he said.
It’s also unclear how much of an impact this fatwa could have on conservation efforts considering the MUI’s reputation for issuing decrees perceived by some Indonesians as ludicrous.
In recent years, the religious authority has issued fatwas against Muslims participating in Christmas celebrations, yoga and smoking, a particularly poorly received instruction in a country where smoking is practically a national pastime.
In 2010, it forbade unmarried Muslim women from hair curling treatments and pre-wedding photos. There has also been growing concern that fatwas targeting religious minorities, such as the Shiite, are provoking sectarian violence.
Mr. Iswarayoga recognizes the shortcomings, but says the fatwa against wildlife trafficking serves as a “reminder” that the Quran “clearly states the roles” of the different parts of various ecosystems and “how humans should live with them.”