Conservation news

Islamic clerics issue ‘fatwa’ against poaching, declare the illegal wildlife trade ‘haram’

Baby orangutans, like this Sumatran orangutan on its mother's back, are often kept illegally in Indonesia.
Baby orangutans, like this Sumatran orangutan on its mother’s back, are often kept illegally in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Indonesia’s Islamic clerics drew praise from conservation groups last week after the top clerical body in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) announced the fatwa on Tuesday, declaring the illegal wildlife trade to be haram, or forbidden under Islamic law. The fatwa forbids Indonesia’s Muslims from “all activities resulting in wildlife extinction” and is meant in part to help support existing national laws protecting endangered species, which are poorly enforced and have done little to prevent poaching.

“People can escape government regulation,” Hayu Prabowo, chair of the council’s environment and natural resources body said, “but they cannot escape the word of God.”

Indonesian law prohibits the killing and trade of protected species. Those found trafficking protected species could face up to five years in jail and Rp 100 million ($8,800) in fines.

However, in practice wildlife traffickers operate largely with impunity in Indonesia. Wildlife crimes are rarely prosecuted and those who are charged typically received light sentences. A 2009 survey by the environmental group ProFauna found 183 protected species being traded in 70 bird markets around the country, including rare parrots, songbirds, primates and other mammals and even birds of prey.

This pangolin fetus is considered a delicacy. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.

Widespread deforestation and palm oil expansion has also taken its toll on Indonesia’s endangered species. Last month, seven Sumatran elephants were found dead on illegal palm oil plantations inside Tesso Nilo National Park, believed to have been poisoned by plantation staff. In Riau province, where Tesso Nilo is located, nearly 130 elephants have been killed in the last 10 years alone.

Conservation groups, including WWF-Indonesia, which worked with MUI to develop the fatwa, have also accused palm oil companies of destroying tiger and orangutan habitat, further imperiling these species and putting them at risk of extinction.

The fatwa also called on the Indonesian government to review permits that have been granted to companies that are damaging the environment.

The idea for the fatwa came after MUI members traveled to Sumatra in September last year, where they visited Tesso Nilo National Park and spoke with conservation groups, government officials and local communities in Riau that have come into conflict with endangered species such as Sumatran tigers and elephants.

Sumatran elephants. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

National Geographic and other news agencies are calling the move unprecedented – the first ever fatwa issued against illegal wildlife trafficking. Conservation groups in Indonesia are also celebrating the MUI’s decision to issue the fatwa and hope the attention from religious leaders will help support existing efforts to protect Indonesia’s wildlife.

“It provides a spiritual aspect and raises moral awareness which will help us in our work to protect and save the remaining wildlife in the country such as the critically endangered tigers and rhinos,” WWF-Indonesia communications director Nyoman Iswara Yoga said.

However, it remains unclear what impact the fatwa will have on the ground. As the Wall Street Journal reported , fatwa’s issued by MUI are not always taken seriously by the 200 million Muslim’s living in Indonesia. The group has issued decrees banning yoga, smoking and even forbidding Muslims from attending Christmas celebrations, which have been largely ignored.

It is also unclear whether the fatwa will have a significant impact on policy. The fatwa is not legally binding and while the council specifically
called on the government to take steps to protect endangered species, MUI decrees rarely result in policy changes, AFP reported.

However, an anonymous source within the Ministry of Forestry told AFP last week that the ministry would make a joint announcement on the fatwa with MUI on Wednesday.