Buddhists set animals free, but harm environment

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

HONG KONG -- Chanting and cheering, hundreds of Buddhists sent the fish on a swim for freedom, putting them onto a pair of stainless steel slides that dropped off the side of a ferry into the South China Sea.

Followers of Buddhism are duty-bound to save any trapped animal -- and the Chinese have adopted the practice and made a tradition of buying, then freeing fish, birds and turtles in the belief it can bring good fortune.

Despite the good intentions of everybody on the ferry, and thousands of fish going down the slides, not many got far. Some stopped flipping almost immediately, and for those that started swimming, fishermen were waiting nearby, nets in place.

As far as environmentalists are concerned, the fish that do get away are a potential problem.

Their ceremonial release creates ecological hazards, according to conservationists who say the nature lovers are effectively killing the animals with misplaced kindness.

"They don't know about the animals, they don't know about the environment, so they are playing with variables that just aren't understood," said Paul Crow, a zoologist at the Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden research institute here.

The animals can spread disease and parasites picked up in captivity, and some threaten biodiversity as alien species are thrust into new habitats.

Some end up where they can't survive.

Freshwater turtles have been seen scrambling toward the seashore for safety after benevolent souls mistakenly thought they came from the sea, said So Ping-man, a senior conservation officer at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The salt water blinds and kills them.

Freshwater fish dropped into the sea are similarly doomed.

Many local religious leaders shrug off the criticism, saying they know how to frequently and safely release animals that will thrive in nature.

"We seldom come across animals that are unfit for the environment since such creatures either can't be imported or they die once they've arrived here," said the Venerable Kok Kwong, president of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.

"Birds that can fly are basically healthy," said Lai Chuk-kwong, a construction site foreman and Buddhist temple member. "Those who say releasing birds can cause illness are worrying too much."

Hard to quantify

The Buddhists say birds and fish can find their way home, even as far away as Indonesia, Malaysia, northern China and South America.

Conservationists doubt it, although they acknowledge it's hard to quantify any environmental damage. No specific studies have been done, So said.

But invasive North American turtles and bullfrogs have become established here and now defeat indigenous species for food and space, the World Wide Fund For Nature said.

Some Chinese celebrate birthdays by freeing one goldfish or songbird for every year they've lived.

Fishmonger Lee Ngan-ngor, 50, always lets carp off the hook, because its Chinese name is pronounced the same as her surname.

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