An Animal Conservationist Shares a Concern over Animal Release Ritual

AKP Phnom Penh, April 08, 2019 —

A foreign wildlife conservationist working in Cambodia has expressed his concern over the ritual of releasing captive animals because it could put already-threatened species and people at risk.

Cambodians as well as other Buddhism practitioners believe that the release of captive animals such as fish, turtles, birds, etc. will cleanse their sins and bring them good karma.

According to Mr. Michael Meyerhoff, Country Director of Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), hundreds of animals are being sold due to this ritual. Many people want to help the animals and buy them to release it to the wild, but of course these animals have suffered a lot in this condition.

In Phnom Penh, at Wat Phnom or opposite the Royal Palace, or in Siem Reap near the Royal Garden, or at other places in Cambodia, people sell hundreds of animals, especially birds and turtles. Most of these animals suffer or even die before the buying or releasing takes place and many of the birds die shortly after the release, because they are often weak, stressed or injured, Mr. Michael Meyerhoff said.

“Some local people who come to visit ACCB feel surprised when we tell them about this problem. I think, really one big part of the problem is that people don’t think too much about the problem because they are not aware of it. And they have a good heart and want to help,” he added.

Mr. Michael Meyerhoff acknowledges that it is related to religious beliefs, and that good-hearted people want to do a good deed. Therefore, the public should be aware that this practice often has the opposite effect on the wildlife and conservation in general.

“For example, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, a species that lives in China and India besides other countries, migrates seasonally to Southeast Asia. It was a fairly common bird 15 or 20 years ago. People catch it in China and in Southeast Asia. Now it is critically endangered in the IUCN Red List,” he said.

But Mr. Michael Meyerhoff is not only worried about the negative conservation impact of this practice and is emphasising that he is “really concerned about the people’s health as well”. There is a high risk that diseases spread, because many birds are being kept together in small cages. Some diseases can not only spread between the birds, but also affect people. A research study conducted in Phnom Penh in 2012 found that around 10 percent of the birds at a merit release location were carrying avian influenza. “Some form of avian influenza is potentially deadly for people. I see many people kiss the bird or hold them close to the face when releasing it. If they are unlucky, maybe they can get diseases as well,” he said, stressing that in many rural areas, maybe the doctor might not detect the cause that the disease came from the bird.

But the ritual of releasing captive animals does not only affect birds. It also poses a huge conservation threat towards already highly endangered turtles.

“Sometimes, people feel pity and buy turtles and bring them here. We always tell people not to buy them. It is against the law to buy and sell these protected species,” he said. “Many of the turtles that come from that place to us are in a very bad condition. Especially the Mekong Snail-eating Turtle. They live usually alone and they are very sensitive for stress, but the sellers usually have them in buckets with 20 or more in the sun.”

“When they get to us, they are in a very bad condition and many of them need many months of treatment and a lot of them die due to their serious condition,” he underlined.

Mr. Michael Meyerhoff is optimistic that “if people understood the problem for captured birds and turtles for rituals, maybe many would stop buying them or report to the authorities.”

According to Fauna and Flora International, Cambodia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in Southeast Asia, with as many as 8,260 plant species (10 percent of which may be endemic) along with more than 250 species of amphibian and reptile, 874 fish species and over 600 bird species.

Of particular interest to conservationists is a 10,000 square kilometre area in the south-west of the country known as the Cardamom Mountain Landscape, which harbours a remarkable diversity of species including elephants, bears and gaur (the world’s largest bovine). Still relatively unexplored, this landscape has many secrets left to reveal, and new species are regularly discovered by biologists surveying its forests. Other large areas in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces are equally of high importance for conservation.

Cambodia also has a rich marine environment, with coral reefs surrounding almost all of its islands. Around 70 coral species are known to be found here, and the country also has extensive sea grass beds and mangrove habitats.

(Photo: Lanh Visal)

By Thach Phanarong