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ARC Home > Projects > Wildlife :
The problem with mercy release

The problem with mercy release

Chinese Buddhists released a cartoon explaining why mercy release was not always merciful

The Buddhist, and often Daoist, practice of mercy release (fang sheng in Chinese) is one in which fish, turtles, birds, and other terrestrial and aquatic animals are ritually released into the natural environment by devotees as an act of compassion and kindness in order to receive good merit.

This traditional practice occurs in Buddhist communities around the world but is most prevalent across Asia, where it has become an increasingly popular practice and a major money earner for temples. Ceremonies can now involve the release of thousands of animals at one time.

The Taiwanese group, EAST, estimates that, prior to its intervention seven years ago, 200 million animals were released per year, with Taiwanese spending over $6 million annually.

One study in Hong Kong found that up to a million birds were sold each year for merit release. The Economist reported that in China “officials estimate around 200m fish, snakes, turtles, birds and even ants are released each year—though no one really has a clue.” A study in Cambodia concluded that almost 700,000 birds were released each year. It is also an important ritual amongst Tibetan Buddhist communities in India.

At the scale at which it is now practiced, mercy release is having unintended negative impacts that are in direct conflict with core Buddhist principles such as ending suffering and “doing no harm” to living beings. It is causing great suffering for affected species, and threatens biodiversity both in the sourcing and release areas. Mercy release is now resulting in:

  • The illegal capture and sale of wild animals: with rising demand and the ritual nature of the practice, specific wildlife species are ordered by the temples and must be supplied from the wild;
  • Intense suffering and high mortality of animals throughout the process of capture, to holding in cages in terrible conditions, to release in unfamiliar habitats;
  • Introduction of invasive species into non-native habitats. Example: The Red-eared slider Trachemys scripta, a common ’release’ species, is now the second most abundant turtle in all the rivers surveyed in Taiwan;8
  • Genetic swamping/ contamination by alien species of local biodiversity area;
  • Spread of disease to other species as well as to humans;
  • High costs of damage to property and of control measures.

These impacts are outlined in more detail in the Society for Conservation Biology’s Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group 2016 Policy Paper, Prayer Animal Release Can Embody Conservation Principles: A Call to Action:

ARC is working with Buddhist and Daoist leadership in China and elsewhere, together with WWF and other secular conservation bodies, to help fill this huge gap in knowledge about the extent animals are illegally sourced from the wild and to understand which species are most impacted, and second, to complement this research with practical initiatives with religious groups to shift to sustainable practices.


Read more here about Daoist initiatives to stop mercy release, and shift people to more sustainable and cruelty-free practices

Read more here about Daoist initiatives to stop mercy release and shift people to more sustainable and cruelty-free practices

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