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Karma Bites Back

Compassionate release of animals has become big business that threatens ecosystems. NewsChina talks with religious believers and conservationists to learn about the traditional ritual and its modern threats to biodiversity

By Wang Yan Updated Mar.1

An alligator gar fished in a residential community's fishpond in Zigong, Sichuan Province, July 24, 2014 (Photo by VCG)

A woman who spent 90,400 yuan (US$13,000) on trying to improve her luck was heading to court on December 29, 2022 after authorities in Changzhou, East China’s Jiangsu Province sued her for releasing 12.5 tons of walking catfish into a lake. Most of the fast-growing exotic fish died, and city workers spent 10 days cleaning the lake.  

The unlucky woman, surnamed Xu, bought the fish from a seller surnamed Liu. Both were fined another 90,000 yuan to pay for the cleanup. Xu claimed they were innocent and she had just wanted to do a good deed.  

In September 2022, the tale of a man surnamed Luo also hit the headlines after he was fined 28,000 yuan (US$3,914) for releasing suckermouth catfish in a reservoir in Baise, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. On September 10, Luo bought three kilograms of suckermouth catfish, a tropical fish native to South America, 12.5 kilograms of mud fish and five kilograms of turtles from a market before releasing them into Chengbihe Reservoir.  

As Luo and his companions released the creatures, they prayed that everyone who saw the ceremony would accumulate merits. Police later summoned him back to the riverside, where he admitted to releasing the aquatic animals. While his intentions were good, Luo did not realize he had broken the National Biosecurity Law, which took effect in April 2021. This says that institutions and individuals cannot import, release or discard alien species without official approval, and those who break the law face fines of between 10,000-50,000 yuan (US$1,400- $7,000).  

Suckermouth catfish were introduced into China as aquarium fish in the 1980s. Since it eats algae, it serves as a natural tank cleaner. The species has a strong ability to survive and reproduce, and a high tolerance for different environments. Once released, it devours eggs and fry of other fish species, and with a hardy dorsal spine, the species has almost no natural enemies. On September 28, Guangxi Baise City Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs fined Luo 28,000 yuan (US$3,914) and ordered him to catch the suckermouth catfish he had released within seven days.  

In China, where animal release is known as fang sheng, a traditional Buddhist ceremonial practice, conservationists are very concerned about the increase in releases because of the harm it causes to ecosystems. According to a National Geographic article in January 2017, animal welfare organization Humane Society International estimated hundreds of millions of animals are released this way each year in China. These include fish, turtles, snakes, monkeys, birds and even insects. 

Good Intentions 
Animal release is a Chinese custom with a long history, with roots in Confucianism, Taoism and folk culture going back over 2,000 years. As Buddhism spread through China, Buddhist adages such as “prevent killing while protecting all lives” and “equality of all living beings” were adopted into local culture. Now, animal release has gone beyond Buddhist believers as people seek a way to improve their fortunes.  

Beijing-based Buddhist Zhu Tao told NewsChina that when she conducts an animal release ritual, she chants a mantra to pray for the well-being of all sentient beings. “I believe the main purpose of this practice is to save lives that are in danger and to pray for their ultimate freedom or enlightenment. It’s also a prayer that all sentient beings gain freedom and escape samsara (cycle of life and death),” Zhu said. “This is also a process for us to practice many Buddhist ideas such as impermanence of life and universal compassion, and raise our awareness of other beings to realize the connectivity or unity of the entire universe.”  

“Animal release, to my understanding, is to release animals that will lose their lives because of human greed,” Buddhist Kong Yanqing, 33, told NewsChina. “The purpose is to remind humans to respect life on Earth... it is a kind of education. Humans busy with material pursuits tend to ignore lower animals, which also feel pain and struggle to survive.”  

Kong added that the highest human nature should be able to feel the pain suffered by these animals and thus experience the joy of giving toward animals. “For me, the practice of animal release allows people to regain the ability to perceive life, which a healthy human being must have,” Kong said.  

Non-Buddhists believe animal release can bring blessings and benefits. Beijinger Yan Li, 66, told NewsChina that she took part in a fish release ceremony in the northeastern outskirts of Beijing with a group of Buddhists. “Although I’m not a Buddhist, I firmly believe that saving lives, such as freeing animals destined to be slaughtered, is a kind and generous behavior benefiting both the animals and everyone involved, since it can bring good fortune and blessing to people,” Yan said. “This is a practice passed down by our ancestors. For example, many Chinese emperors would hold animal release rituals when their children or grandchildren were born as a blessing. So, this is a tradition of our Chinese culture.”  

According to Zhu Tao, there are hundreds of thousands of Buddhists in Beijing who may conduct animal release rituals regularly. “As far as I know, quite a significant number of Buddhists may even conduct the ritual once every week,” Zhu said. “Of course, often people hope for merits or secular benefits when releasing animals, particularly when they encounter misfortunes in life such as sickness and tragic accidents. They expect to benefit.”  

Deviating from the original Buddhist intention, animal release rituals can incline toward utilitarianism as people seek secular benefit through it. People release a fish to pray for good health, college admission, or even finding a good spouse. 

Catch and Re-release
The increasing popularity of animal release has fostered a booming market with animals bred to be released.  

Li Xia, 56, is a client of Liu Zhong, who conducts animal release rituals for others. Li told NewsChina Liu has released animals once a month for her for the last five years at a cost of 500 yuan (US$70). “When they release animals for me, they send me a video taken on site, telling me which basin or which bucket of fish is for me,” Li said. “The most expensive was an 18,888 yuan (US$2,637) turtle weighing over 12 kilograms when my mother was in hospital. In the video they sent me when they weighed the turtle, they said it was wild, not farmed.”  

Liu Zhong said that the prices for different species are different. The cheapest is a mud fish or eel for 30 yuan (US$4), while some expensive fish and birds cost between 50-100 yuan (US$7-14). The larger the animal, the higher the price. Releasing bigger animals that live longer accumulates more merits. Releasing scorpions, snakes and toads which are poisonous and regarded as “sinful” in Chinese culture is believed to deliver extra blessings. Because hedgehogs, weasels, turtles and foxes are supposedly “psychic” in nature, they are pricier and believed to bring more merits and blessings.  

But all is not what it seems. Harry Zhu, an avid fisher, told NewsChina that he has seen fish sellers along the Chaobai River in northeastern Beijing catch and resell the released fish. “Before they sell the fish from tanks they hauled up on trucks to worshipers who release them, they install nets near the riverbank,” Zhu said. “When the ceremony is over, they haul the fish back to the shore and sell their catch to the next group.” But many fish die in the process. “This is very ironic since the practice ends up being the opposite of saving lives,” Zhu said. 

Crocodiles for sale in a supermarket in Shiyan, Hubei Province, November 4, 2017 (Photo by VCG)

Alien Invasions 
Bigger threats come from the release of exotic species or poached wild animals, which disrupt ecosystems.  

Professor Wang Fang with the School of Life Sciences at Fudan University cautioned that because of the different ecosystems caused by geographical and climate conditions, native species have different living habits and population sizes. The random release of organisms of “unknown origin” in an unassessed natural environment would have a huge impact. “Take foxes as an example. I once saw foxes being released in the wild near Miaofeng Mountain in southwestern Beijing. They are not a native species, but are imported from Russia. Some of them are scrawny from lack of food and they go down the mountain to scavenge for food. I even saw dead foxes in the neighborhood,” Wang said.  

The death toll from catching wild birds is huge due to the use of mist nets that trap them in flight. “Analysis shows that for every wild bird captured, 10 die. A lot of birds are caught accidentally, and this causes untold ecological damage,” he said.  

The Chinese Field Conservation Alliance published an article in September 2022 pointing out that reckless animal release causes much more animal suffering than it prevents, undermining the original intention of the Buddhist ritual. The Alliance said that responsible and scientific animal release activities should follow the Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

He Xin, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, has long been concerned about animal release activities. He told Southern Weekly in late September that to meet the demand for animal releases, many sellers trap wildlife. “In fact, many released birds are caught in the wild,” He said.  

He has observed that the red-eared slider turtle is one of the most released species in China. The turtle, which is native to North America, is one of the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species according to the Global Invasive Species Database.  

“It has no natural enemies and can breed quickly,” He said. As turtles represent longevity, good luck and wisdom in traditional Chinese culture, people regard their release as a way to dispel disaster, increase happiness and prolong life. “There is no problem with releasing five turtles, but if 500 are released, it poses a serious threat to local species,” Li Bo, director of the Hainan International Wildlife Conservation Center, told Southern Weekly.  

According to Professor Wang Fang, releasing large numbers of mud fish and eels causes riverbed erosion and eutrophication, leading to excessive algae due to increased excrement and nutrients in the water. “When you get these problems, both native creatures and released species will die in most cases,” Wang said.  

As the practice of animal release gains popularity, media has frequently reported the negative impact. There have been several mass releases of 500, even 1,000 snakes that after infesting villages were killed. In August 2022, authorities in Ruzhou, Henan Province drained an entire lake to catch an alligator gar, one of the largest freshwater fish from North America that has no natural predators in China. Suspected sightings of the fish have been reported in other cities since.  

In some parks and beside rivers, signs are posted which warn people not to release species in the water.  

The issue has aroused attention from Buddhist followers. One of them, Zou Yuqiong, said that she recommended people release animals at unfixed times and locations. “We should purchase released animals from random vendors... and also consider the local ecological environment and choose proper living spaces for potential released animals, so as not to destroy the local ecology,” Zou said. 

A falcon perches on a man’s hand in Xiangyang, Hubei Province, March 26, 2014 (Photo by IC)

Laws and Nature 
In 2016, the then Ministry of Agriculture and the National Religious Affairs Office banned the release of hybrid species, breeding species, imported species and others which do not meet ecological requirements.  

China’s Wildlife Protection Law stipulates that from January 1, 2017, any organization or individual releasing wild animals should choose species that can survive in the wild to avoid wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, and should not interfere with residents’ lives and jobs. 
Animal releases that cause personal or property damage or endanger the ecological system are punishable by law. In January 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released a document titled “Guiding Opinions on the Proliferation and Release of Aquatic Organisms during the 14th Five-Year Plan” that bans 126 aquatic organisms from being released anywhere in China and clarifies that unscientific animal release is illegal.  

In mid-October, 2022, the draft revision of the new Wildlife Protection Law was submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) for second deliberation, and it intends to further regulate the release of wild animals.  

“There are already regulations to follow, but it is very difficult to manage at the present stage,” He Xin said. Animal release groups should be managed better, he said.  

Buddhist groups are promoting better practices. In 2014, the Buddhist Association of China called on the public to “kindly protect the lives and rationally release animals.” According to the association, some groups are exploring more scientific and reasonable ways to release animals. Huadan Chiba Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk from Qinghai Province, told NewsChina that unlike the Tibetan practice of releasing yaks or sheep from the slaughterhouse to pastureland, damage can occur when animals are released in cities, and he has cautioned people to find proper species and locations to do the ritual.  

Wang Fang instead urges animal lovers to join conservation groups as volunteers or support animal protection projects. “There’s no problem with the good intention of saving lives, but the action should be more in line with societal development,” Wang said.