Taiwan's 'Prayer Animals' Wreak Havoc

In Taiwan, the faithful annually release some 200 million animals into the wild, or think they do, in an effort to accumulate good karma. However, it’s actually taking a frightful toll on both animal rights and the island's biodiversity.

Across much of Asia, particularly in Buddhist temples, making merit has been described as a kind of bank account of good deeds laid up to move the individual along the path to successful reincarnation. However, the increasingly wealthy Taiwanese seem to have carried it to extremes, releasing animals in batches of hundreds or even thousands, to the increasing detriment to the environment.

The merit-maker buys a presumably wild creature at the closest temple and sets it into the air or drops it in a nearby river. Often in business cooperation between temples and animal dealers, the creatures are either smuggled in from overseas, caught in the wild or bred for the purpose.

However, the term “biotic homogenization” describes a major environmental nightmare that the Taiwanese are helping along. Occurring on a global scale, species are transported to spots they would never have reached on their own. Released into the wild either accidentally or deliberately, most plants and animals die soon after, but a few manage to conquer their new ecosystems, sometimes causing extinction among indigenous species. Whereas elsewhere abandoned or escaped pets give environmentalists headaches, in Taiwan, it is these prayer animals.

Organized by temples or individually and aggressively marketed by “animal release groups” touting miracle healing, animals both local and exotic are released. Yet while believers might feel psychological relief as a reward for their supposedly good deed, they hardly question what happens to the creatures both before being sold and after their release.

Bruno Walther, a visiting assistant professor for environmental science at Taipei Medical University, shed light on what's in store.

“If caught in the wild, many will die during capture or transport,” Walther said, adding that in Taiwan, birds are mostly caught in farming areas in order to protect produce.

“Farmers erect nets on poles up to 3 meters high; birds caught end up on the dinner table or sold to the animal release industry, and if not, they die as slowly as Jesus on the cross.”

Prayer animals bred in captivity, which in Taiwan are usually foreign turtles and fish, usually die upon release as they are unable to find food in their new environment or fall victim to predators, Walther said.

However, a few exotic creatures that are canny enough do make it. Walther himself is credited for having co-discovered and traced one species that is apparently in the process of invading Taiwan's ecology. The Red-whiskered Bulbul, a medium-sized songbird, is widespread on the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia but does not occur naturally in Taiwan. Yet, popular with temple-goers for release during religious ceremonies, this invader threatens other species through competition for food.

Another problem is that the invasive species, if closely related to endemic ones, may swamp their genetic pool through a process called hybridization. The introduced Chinese Bulbul, for instance, may breed with the Taiwan Bulbul.

“The invasive Bulbul hybridizes with the local ones, leading to genetic extinction,” Walther said. He also pointed at the Chinese Huamei, a songbird that is mingling with its Taiwanese counterpart.

Another intriguing political metaphor includes Taiwan’s national bird, the Blue Magpie, which was about to unify with the Chinese Magpie to end up as the Taiwan-Chinese Magpie. However, in this case, particularly swift action was taken by Taiwan's Endemic Species Research Institute, which ruthlessly eliminated the foreign invader.

Another bird, the Crested Myna, doesn't fare much better. A member of the starling family, the species was Taiwan's only myna, but now there are five others, all competing for nesting sites and feeding grounds.

Invasive species are also to blame for concrete economic losses. Taiwanese environmental groups charge that the ceremonial release of tons of fish into the island's reservoirs causes fish to die of lack of oxygen, with the dead fish in turn poisoning the drinking water. Prayer animals may also transmit serious diseases. Scientists are very concerned that transporting birds can spread serious diseases such as avian influenza, which has been spreading throughout Asia and the world since 2003.

Walther also pointed at examples such as the Zebra mussel from the Caspian Sea which in the late 1980s was accidentally introduced into North America’s Great Lakes and within 10 years cost US$5 billion to control. There was also the “Taiwanese snail disaster” which came about in 1979, when the Pomacea canaliculata, or channeled apple snail, was introduced from Argentina. The exotic snails failed to appeal to Taiwanese taste buds and ended up escaping into the wild, only to develop into an invasive “winner” species, causing significant damage to rice paddies and aquatic plants ever since.

Taiwanese environmentalists have long complained that temples and religious groups organizing ceremonial releases generally refuse to be studied. Temple records remain off-limits to researchers. The scientific world thus must make do with either observations in the wild or surveys of the Taiwanese population.

Surveys carried out by L.L. Severinghaus and L. Chi in the late 1990s showed surprisingly that those who engage in the activity are not necessarily followers of Buddhism and Taoism – both of which decree that releasing animals back to nature is one of the ways to garner good karma – but that religious backgrounds are diverse: 29.5 percent of respondents of all religions said that they occasionally participate. The surveys furthermore found that women with lower education, who are financially well-off, who run their own business and who believe that released animals can survive in the wild are most likely to participate. Another survey targeting temples and the animal release industry carried out by the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan in 2004 showed that 24.1 percent of temples and religious institutions provided animal releasing services, and that 60% of bird retailers sold birds specifically for the purpose.

Moreover, it was found that orders are commonly received in advance for specific types of birds so that the animals, which may go for as little as US$.50¢ if bought in quantities of a few hundred, could be caught or reared in advance.

Although these findings are a few years old, scientists hold that it's safe to presume that the data is current, mainly because although Taiwan enacted a wildlife conservation law in 1989, laws on exotic species, let alone law enforcement, are virtually non-existent. Scientists agree that this is not likely to change any time soon.

“Taiwan has very few related laws, and those in place are laxly enforced. Going against prayer animal release is particularly difficult as it almost inevitably pits religion against animal rights and biodiversity protection,” Walther said. He added that many temples are run like businesses needing to make a profit, and that it does not help matters either that the Taiwanese public generally doesn't know whether species are exotic or not.

The island's celebrities are certainly not helpful, either. Recently, Sisy Chen, an influential TV talk show host, published an article in which she described how someone she knew was cured of insomnia after having released 14,000 kg of fish into a reservoir.

Apart from the strengthening and enforcement of regulations and the implementation of educational and awareness campaigns, Walther recommended a cultural approach.

“The Taiwanese burn ghost money as an offering to their deceased ancestors. This ghost money isn't real money. I suggest real prayer animals could be replaced with paper animals. But, of course, the paper should be biodegradable.”