During the Qingming Festival, news that snakes were released on a bank of Lancang River in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, has thrown fangsheng, or animal release, into the spotlight.
The news has caused panic to the local residents. An investigation launched by the local authorities showed that a man surnamed Yue bought 40 kilos of snakes online on April 2 from Foshan, South China’s Guangdong Province, together with some aquatic animals like Tilapia mossambica, finless eels and mud fish, and set them free in Lancang river and the mountains in Jinghong.
The authorities sent around 50 people to inspect and 12 snakes have been retrived as of April 7. After identification, the snakes were found non-poisonous nor under state protection, the local authorities announced. Still, Yue’s move allegedly broke the administrative law of wildlife transporting.
It’s not uncommon for people in China to release animals into parks, rivers and mountains. It’s estimated that around 200 million animals like fish, snakes, turtles and birds are released into the wild in China each year.
Fangsheng, releasing captive animals into the wild, is deemed as a way to demonstrate compassion, pray for good fortune and earn merit in Buddhism. The ritual has been passed down for generations by Buddha devotees and regarded as proof of Chinese tradition to respect nature and live in harmony with wildlife.
According to a local investigation, Yue was a real estate developer and attempted to seek fortune via the animal release.
However, the ritual to show kindness could turn into a disaster without proper environmental awareness and regulation.
First, in several cases the animals were found not native to the destinations where they were released. These animals many not only contain some bacteria, but also threaten the local ecosystem.
For example, in September 2015, the fishery department in Chun’an county, Zhejiang Province, captured more than 350 red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) before they were released to Qiandao Lake. The turtle is included in the list of the world's 100 most invasive species published by the IUCN.
In another case, the squirrels released to Dajinkou township caused a poor harvest to local walnut farmers in 2012.
Second, many animals the devotees bought are actually not wild but artificially bred. Many may lose the ability to survive in the wild. For example, many fish released in this winter were found floating dead in Songhua River.
Third, the boom of fangsheng has also promoted poaching of key protected animals.
People’s compassion for life should be encouraged. But animal releasing should be integrated with legal awareness and environmental protection science.
Some places have already formulated related legislation to regulate the behavior, such as requiring the animals to be quarantined before release. Starting this year, a biodiversity conservation regulation took effect in Yunnan Province, which bans releasing alien animals and the offenders will be fined up to 10,000 yuan.
But the penalty is still small compared to the untold damage caused by them.
In September 2017, two London Buddhists were ordered to pay more than £28,000 in fines and compensation for releasing non-native crabs and lobsters into the sea off Brighton, causing “untold damage” to marine life.
Government agencies had to spend thousands of pounds in an attempt to recapture the shellfish, offering fishermen a bounty to reel them in, according to the Guardian.
Environmental awareness is growing in China. Fangsheng also made a comeback. Nevertheless, blind animal release may not be doing good, but doing evil.