Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body has issued a fatwa, or edict, against illegal wildlife trafficking.
This unprecedented step by the Indonesian Council of Ulama, in the country with the world's largest Muslim population, declares illegal hunting or illegal trading of endangered species to be haram (forbidden).
For many the word "fatwa" took on ominous tones in 1989 when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death threat against Salman Rushdie for blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses.
But the fatwa itself is merely a call to action. Invoking passages from the Koran, the fatwa (which you can read in full below) is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
The fatwa requires Indonesia's 200 million Muslims to take an active role in protecting and conserving endangered species, including tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans.
"This fatwa is issued to give an explanation, as well as guidance, to all Muslims in Indonesia on the sharia law perspective on issues related to animal conservation," said Hayu Prabowo, chair of the Council of Ulama's environment and natural resources body.
The fatwa supplements existing Indonesian law. "People can escape government regulation," Hayu said, "but they cannot escape the word of God."
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK LEONG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Orphan orangutans are housed at a Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation facility.
The Creations of Allah
The fatwa was inspired in September 2013 by a field trip to Sumatra for Muslim leaders co-organized by Indonesia's Universitas Nasional (UNAS), WWF-Indonesia, and the U.K.-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry and HarimauKita (the Indonesian Tiger Conservation Forum) offered additional consultation.
During a community dialogue with village representatives to discuss conflicts between villagers and Sumatran elephants and tigers, some of the villagers asked about the status in Islam of animals such as elephants and tigers.
The Muslim leaders replied: "They are creations of Allah, as we are. It is haram to kill them, and keeping them alive is part of the worship of God."
Hayu emphasizes that the fatwa applies not only to individuals but also to the government, noting that corruption can be an issue when wildlife, forests, and the interests of such industries as the oil palm business come into conflict.
The fatwa specifically calls upon the government to review permits issued to companies that harm the environment and to take measures to conserve endangered species.
A Time of Unprecedented Wildlife Crime
The fatwa comes at a time when transnational wildlife crime has reached unprecedented levels, with special burdens on countries—such as Indonesia—that are still rich in rare or unusual wildlife and plants.
It comes at a time, too, when governments are struggling to craft laws and pay for enforcement officers to fight criminal wildlife trafficking syndicates that are increasingly sophisticated and violent.
The Council of Ulama hopes its fatwa, which bridges the gap between formal law and crime and gives strong guidance to Indonesian Muslims, will help reduce wildlife trafficking.
Indonesia's action is a response to concern for the country's ecosystems rather than any Islamic practices involving wildlife. Still, throughout history, religion has played an important role as a driver in the consumption of animal species, some now critically endangered.
In 2005, the Dalai Lama called upon his followers to end wildlife trafficking. Recently, the men of South Africa's Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church, a traditionalist Zulu church, began using faux leopard skins in their religious ceremonies. As shown in National Geographic magazine's "Ivory Worship," Buddhists in Thailand and China, as well as Catholics around the world, who collect ivory religious statues continue to play a role in the smuggling and illegal consumption of elephant ivory.
Following is the full text of the fatwa pertaining to wildlife issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulama, the country's top Muslim clerical body.
Read more National Geographic coverage of wildlife trafficking: