Celebrations for Songkran – Thailand’s most famous festival – to mark the Thai New Year are well underway, and “merit-making” is particularly emphasised at this time of year. In one popular tradition at temples, captive birds are freed in an effort to show compassion and accumulate “merits” for health and longevity.
However, in order for these animals to be “freed”, they must first be captured in the wild. As these rituals have increased in popularity, a large commercial trade has developed in many areas of Southeast Asia, resulting in the traumatic capture and transportation of these birds as well as the demise of wild populations.
A study examining the trade of wild birds for release in Cambodia, co-authored by Martin Gilbert, a veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society, estimated that approximately 700,000 birds passed through the local trade annually. Another study estimated that up to 580,000 birds per year were released in Buddhist temples in Hong Kong.
Granting freedom to a captive bird is considered an act of compassion, but hunters often wait nearby to recapture the disorientated birds. Those who evade recapture can quickly become fatigued in a frightening, unfamiliar environment and often die shortly after release.
Birds are intelligent, self-aware animals. Those held captive endure heart-breaking physical and psychological abuse and are forced to tolerate unnatural direct contact with humans. Birds are meant to fly and interact with others of their own kind in a natural environment. They often preen one another, fly and play together, and share egg-incubation duties.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, some temples are now becoming aware of the cruelty involved in these releases and have started to ban vendors from their grounds. However, we need your help! If you visit a temple and see any of these vendors, please don’t support them.