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Freshly captured from the peat swamp forests of southern Vietnam, this greater coucal will likely wind up on a dinner plate, as a caged pet or as a merit release offering. Image: Courtesy of Rachel Nuwer
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A young Vietnamese woman’s husband fell ill. Desperate for a cure, she later recounted, she visited the local Buddhist temple. A monk there instructed her to “release 40 birds, one for every year of your husband’s life.” So she did, purchasing and releasing 40 birds at the temple grounds. The woman soon rejoiced; her husband made a full recovery.
This is a common story in Asia, where “merit releases” of captive wild animals are performed in Buddhist rituals. But the practice raises concern amongst the conservation community for its potential to impact threatened species. Before a bird can be freed, it has to be captured—often just after having been released by someone else. The result is the denuding of wild populations and a vast recycling of mistreated animals, most of which are likely die on one of their ersatz flights to freedom. As if that were not bad enough, the dead, disease-ridden animals are then sold in food markets.
“We were staggered by the number of birds moving through this trade,” says Martin Gilbert, a veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society who recently co-authored a study in Biological Conservation on merit releases. “It’s a very good rational and understandable thing to do, to let captive animals go free,” he says. “But in certain situations, it creates a trade purely for demand for animals in cages.”
Gilbert and his colleagues monitored daily sales of merit release birds in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, over a period of 13 months. From their findings, they estimated nearly 700,000 animals pass through the local trade annually. They recorded a total of 57 bird species in the cages, including globally near-threatened Asian golden weavers and vulnerable yellow-breasted buntings.
“This paper highlights the potentially huge impact merit releases have on a few birds that are easily caught and are already of conservation concern,” says John Pilgrim, a conservation consultant who specializes in Southeast Asia and Melanesia and who was not involved in the study.
Gilbert says he knows of only one other study, conducted in Hong Kong, which attempted to estimate merit release figures. The numbers were comparable, reporting that Hong Kong Buddhist temples released up to 580,000 birds per year.
“It’s pretty scary that this [new] paper estimates just a dozen families in two small markets sold more than 630,000 birds per year,” Pilgrim says.
Conservationists do not know how the merit release market figures into Asia’s overall wildlife trade, which also exploits wild birds for pets, food, passerine fights and song contests. Globally, trade in wild birds impacts about 400 species that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, or one third of all threatened bird species. No one know how many birds succumb each year to the wildlife trade since much of the trafficking is illegal, but within Southeast Asia alone, it is likely “in the order of tens of millions,” says Kelly Edmunds, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in England who investigates the emerging infectious diseases amongst bird sellers in Asia and was not involved in the study.
Buddhists free captive animals in order to accumulate health and longevity merits for themselves and loved ones. The exact origins of the practice are unclear, though it was mentioned in fifth-century Chinese Buddhist texts that instructed followers to “practice the act of releasing animals due to the mind of compassion.”