[Updated at 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5, 2014]
Jakarta. Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body has issued a fatwa, or decree, against the illegal hunting and trade in endangered animals in the country, a move wildlife protection activists have hailed as a world first.
The fatwa by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) declares poaching and wildlife trafficking “unethical, immoral and sinful,” Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, secretary of the council’s commission on fatwas, said as quoted by AFP.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The country of 250 million people has the world’s biggest Muslim population, but it remains unclear whether the fatwa — which is not legally binding and serves more as a guideline — would have any practical impact.
Indonesia’s vast and unique array of wildlife is under increasing pressure from development, logging and agricultural expansion.
The government does not typically react to fatwas by implementing specific policy changes.
However, a Forestry Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous told AFP the ministry and the religious council would make a joint announcement regarding the fatwa next Wednesday, without elaborating on its content.
The World Wide Fund for Nature called the fatwa the first of its kind in the world, and said the use of religion for wildlife protection “is a positive step forward.”
“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.
The fatwa was the result of months of dialogue between government officials, conservationists and other stakeholders, Asrorun said.
Acknowledging it was not legally binding, Asrorun said in English: “It’s a divine binding.”
He said the fatwa was effective from Jan. 22. It was only made public late on Tuesday.
The fatwa urges the government to effectively monitor ecological protection, review permits issued to companies accused of harming the environment, and bring illegal loggers and wildlife traffickers to justice.
The clearing, often illegally, of Indonesia’s once-rich forests for timber extraction or to make way for oil palm or other plantations poses a severe threat to critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, orangutan and elephant. Poachers also target wild elephants for their tusks.
Under Indonesian law, trafficking in protected animals can result in a maximum of five years in jail and Rp 100 million ($8,700) in fines.
Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) wild animal protection coordinator Femke den Haas said the fatwa was unexpected, but she welcomed the positive impact it could bring in efforts to protect Indonesia’s wildlife.
“It can’t do any harm. People often ignored government regulations, but for religious beliefs they do listen, so it could work,” she told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday.
She said that in a deeply religious country like Indonesia, involving clergy in the campaign to protect the indigenous wildlife could prove significant.
However, she noted that religious reasons were also often cited as a justification for killing animals.
“Religion has a very strong influence here, but sometimes because of religion people feel like they have the right to kill the animals even though the government says it is prohibited,” Den Haas said. “No matter what your religion or background is, you should follow the national regulations. Killing endangered species is prohibited by the 1990 Natural Resources Conservation Law.”