HONG KONG -- Chanting and cheering, hundreds of Buddhists sent
thousands of 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
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
Despite the good intentions of everybody on the ferry, not many of the
fish got very far. Some stopped flipping almost immediately, and for
those who started swimming, fishers were waiting nearby, nets in
As far as environmentalists are concerned, the fish who do get away are
a potential problem. The 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."
Many claim their lives improve after freeing the animals. "My son got
healthier," said 37-year-old housewife Winnie Kwan, who brought
5-year-old Ian to help slide red snappers, star snappers, and groupers
into the sea.
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.
Buddhist Nancy Lee says there's no problem in releasing birds. "I do it
whenever and wherever I wish to," Lee said after picking up a cage of
six sparrows from a local bird market, apparently without realizing two
were already dead.
Sparrows are plentiful around Hong Kong, and no one keeps them as
pets. So dealers capture them just to sell them to people who want to
Just about every bird market stall has a sign touting the cheapest
option for release: a sparrow or a white-backed munia costing five Hong
Kong dollars (US 64 cents).
But many die being captured or transported or in the crowded local bird
markets, said Ng Cho-nam, president of The Conservancy Association.
Bird store owner Johnny Wong acknowledged that sparrows, Japanese
white-eyes, and white-backed munias are recaptured by traders soon
after their release, then sold again at a discount.
Some customers go all out, freeing magpie robins and foreign cockatoos
costing more than 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$1,282) each.
The recent Buddhist boat outing netted 31,000 Hong Kong dollars
(US$3,974) for businessman Cheng Sui-sing, who supplied the fish.
But environmentalists contend Hong Kong should establish rules--
there are now none-- to bring the animal releasers under control. The
government conservation officer, So, said any workable regulations
would be tricky to write and hard to enforce. Officials call informal
communication of sound guidelines the better approach.
Zoologist Crow disagrees. "They've always done it, so they always will
until somebody puts a foot down," Crow said. "In most First World
countries, they've learned from experience and serious problems that
you cannot afford to allow the public just to go dumping animals into
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