While the tradition of ‘merit releasing’ birds is rooted in Buddhist principles of compassion, the worldly effects are devastating for the Kingdom’s wildlife.
At the shrine near Siem Reap’s Royal Gardens yesterday, more than two dozen cages filled with hundreds of birds sat on the ground waiting to be bought and then released by people seeking karmic merit.
One of five sellers at the spot, Koa Sokhon, said she would sell up to 200 birds a day, but claimed the birds weren’t seriously harmed.
“Some of them aren’t able to make it,” she said, “but it’s only one or two out of a hundred”.
Moments later, four swifts were released. Three flew off, but one crash landed only metres away and lay where it fell.
The purpose of releasing the birds was to “give life to the other being, and by giving life to make merit”, said Somnieng Hoeurn, former deputy head monk at Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak.
“Giving life is the best gift you can give,” he said. “But it also symbolises forgiveness and cleaning sin from previous actions. People wish or pray when they release the animals to cleanse their sins and to ask for forgiveness.”
However, the ancient principle of merit seeking has turned into a thriving trade in capturing and selling wild animals for ceremonial release. It has taken root across Asia with devastating consequences for the animals involved.
Hoeurn acknowledged the potential harm. “It’s very hard,” he said. “We need to raise awareness that other beings have the right to live happily and freely, not just from the religious perspective but also from the scientific and political perspective. Every life is equal.”
And it’s not just small birds like swifts that are being trapped and released for merit.
Battambang native Johnny Orn, the director of the Sam Veasna Centre, a Siem Reap-based bird-watching and conservation NGO, said he was distressed to find three barn owls being offered for sale at the shrine earlier this week.
“There were three in a cage in a weak condition, two were standing and one was lying on its side. I think the seller did not give water or food to them for several days,” he said.
It was ironic that the barn owls were being used for merit gathering, Orn said, given their association with death in Khmer culture.
“It is weird for me because most Cambodians think barn owls are bad, especially when they sing at night,” he said. “It is believed that the song of the barn owl will cause humans to die, and I think this is the reason no one bought those owls from the seller.”
Dr Catherine Wood, a British vet and former employee of the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, said birds were often denied access to food, water or shade, and that the wire mesh of the cages could cause limb and foot injuries.
“The two main problems are exposure to people and overcrowding. Birds, even birds of prey, become very stressed when they have nowhere to hide or escape,” she said. “It’s basically like a person being in a shark cage.
“And to keep birds like the parrots or finches with dozens or hundreds in a single basket so that they are standing on top of each other is also very stressful. They become covered in faeces and urates.
“But mostly, I think they are at risk of dying from stress.”
Wood added that birds of prey usually have territory that they know and defend, and that flock species have no hope of survival as individuals. Such close contact with so many other birds also risked transmitting diseases such as H5N1 – bird flu – and the capture of endangered species further jeopardises their viability.
In Phnom Penh, a study carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2012 found that as many as 770,000 birds went up for sale at two sites in the city. Among the species identified were the Alexdrine parakeet and Asian golden weaver, whose populations are near-threatened, and the yellow-breasted weaver, which is endangered.
The birds were also in poor health, with more than 10 per cent in the sample testing positive for H5N1.
According to the report, the sheer number of birds observed for sale raised questions about the conservation impact of the activity. It also referenced another study in Hong Kong which found that as many as half of the observed birds died within 10 days of release.
Conservationists say there is little they can do to stop the practice as trading in merit-release animals is allowed under the Forestry Law, which otherwise bans trade in wildlife.
“We are not allowed to confiscate birds for merit release,” said Nick Marx, director of the wildlife rescue and care program at the Wildlife Alliance.
“It is legal and we are not allowed to intervene despite the fact that it is pointless, serves no useful purpose and probably ends in the deaths of most of the birds that are released.”
At least one of the barn owls survived after a group of foreigners managed to convince a group of small children in the park that were playing with the bird to hand it over.
While barn owls don’t normally drink water – they get their moisture from their food – this one drank awkwardly when offered water from a bottle, he said.
The fate of the other barn owls remains uncertain.
Daniel Roper-Jones, director of conservation education organisation Fauna in Focus, assisted with the release of the rescued barn owl.
“The biggest problem that I see with the trafficking of merit birds is that conservation organisations do not yet have the authority to stop the practice,” Roper-Jones said.
He is working on campaigns to help build public awareness and support within schools, communities and pagodas.
“If these awareness campaigns are successful, I hope it will build enough public support, especially among local monk leaders, to petition the Department of Cult and Religion to condemn the practice.
“If they do, conservation organisations working to protect wildlife will get the permissions they need to shut these activities down permanently.”
He emphasised that while barn owls aren’t a protected species, their predatory roles are vital to the food chain.
“I’ve had sellers tell me it doesn’t matter because these owls are not endangered,” he said. “Then they complain that there are too many rats in their fields while they are catching, to sell or eat, all the native predators like snakes, monitor lizards, eagles, owls and so on.”