If a country wants to crack down on wildlife crime, it usually focuses on strong laws, effective enforcement, and widespread public support. But if those don’t work, there’s another tool in the box: religion.
Enter the fatwa, or Islamic edict. In November, the fatwa council in Terengganu, a state in northeastern Malaysia, issued one that prohibits the state’s approximate 970,000 Muslim residents from poaching.
Islamic clerics and scientists put the fatwa together out of concern over the fate of the vulnerable sambar deer and its predator, the critically endangered Malayan tiger, hunted for its supposed medicinal properties and in retaliation for killing villagers’ livestock.
“People can escape government regulation. But they cannot escape the word of God,” Hayu Prabowo, chair of the Council of Ulama, Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, told National Geographic last March. That was after the council issued a fatwa prohibiting illegal wildlife trafficking in Indonesia, marking what’s believed to be the first one invoked to protect wildlife.
Terengganu’s fatwa, first reported by Malaysian newspaper New Strait Times, declares the illegal hunting of a species to extinction to be haram, or forbidden. It highlights the tenets of Islam that call on Muslims to protect Allah’s creations and forbid followers from hunting any species to extinction.
We’re not talking about a death sentence—a misconception spawned when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. A fatwa is actually a legal decree, applicable to all Muslims, that relates to a certain issue. People can choose whether they want to respect it.
So if it’s non-binding, how can a fatwa curb poaching?
“While we don’t expect poachers to change their ways overnight, we hope this fatwa will at least start to create peer pressure around them,” says Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, of the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and James Cook University, who helped with the fatwa. He notes that many poachers in the state belong to practicing Muslim communities that would abide by a fatwa.
Clements believes that religious leaders can play a crucial role in conservation issues, and through his research, found that Islamic sermons heightened public concern about them. But it’s not only Muslim leaders taking a stand on the wildlife trade, especially because religion and the illicit industry have strong historical links.
For example, the Dalai Lama in 2005 called on his Buddhist followers to stop trafficking wildlife. And just last month, Wildlife Watch reported that Pope Francis urged action against ivory trafficking. This comes three years after the National Geographic investigation Ivory Worship highlighted the extent of Catholic demand for religious statues carved from ivory.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.