Today that practice extends to birds, turtles, fish, crabs and even ants. A 1999 study in Taipei found that 29.5 percent of 1,000 randomly interviewed people had released prayer animals at some point in their life.
As hopeful as the flight of a bird from a cage may look, few of the creatures escape to a better life. After buyers free them, hunters often wait nearby to recapture the fatigued, disoriented animals. No sure mortality estimates exist for the practice, but a report (pdf) issued by the wildlife trade–monitoring organization TRAFFIC estimates that 30 to 55 percent of all birds that enter the wildlife trade do not survive. The Institute of Supervising Animal Epidemic Control of Guangzhou in China claims that 90 percent or more of the birds used in merit releases die, according to an article in the journal Contemporary Buddhism.
“There are cages rammed in with hundreds of birds of different species,” Edmunds says. “Cages are often stacked on top of one another, so feces and feather dust pass down onto the animals below,” she describes. The birds become stressed, increasing their susceptibility to disease, which is a concern for both animals and humans.
Gilbert and his colleagues tested the Cambodian birds for pathogens and found that more than 10 percent carried bird flu. Buyers come into close contact with the birds they release, and the traders sell deceased birds to roadside diners at the end of the day, which introduces the potential for disease transmission. “I was really puzzled when I first saw people kissing the birds when they released them,” says Philippe Buchy, a medical virologist at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia in Phnom Penh who was not involved in the study. “I thought, what would happen if one of these little birds was infected with the H5N1 virus?”
In a recent study, Buchy showed that Eurasian tree sparrows, a species commonly used in merit releases, can harbor H5N1 and transmit it to other birds. He also found viral particles on the sparrows’ feathers, meaning infected merit release birds could pass the disease on to susceptible people. “As a microbiologist, I will always say that whatever wild animal it is, humans should not go into contact with it,” Buchy says.
Still, banning merit releases outright is likely not the solution. “Who are we to say these practices are wrong?” Edmunds says. “But I think there is scope to improve the conditions under which these practices take place,” she adds.
Gilbert imagines programs forged between researchers and Buddhist communities in which declining native species are captive-bred and then released by practitioners. The Society for Conservation Biology and Buddhist communities are already exploring initial ways of doing this.
“I think the next logical step is work out a method that allows releases to be done in a way that is true to the original spirit of the practice,” he says.