Across Southeast Asia, the Buddhist practice of releasing captive animals to *make merit* is widespread. In Cambodia alone, at least 10 million animals are traded every year to fulfil the demand for mercy release. Birds are the most visible part of the trade, with more than 3 million munias, sparrows, weavers and swallows, along with dozens of other species, caught in the wild every year and sold for release at popular shrines and pagodas.
Merit release is namely done for the benefit of the animal, while believed to bring positive karma and good luck. Practitioners often have something in mind: they wish success at an exam, fortune in business, recovery from disease or to simply keep potential dangers at bay.
The practice appears innocuous: wild birds are admittedly captured, yet not without being eventually set free. A closer look into cages reveals a grim reality, with scores of individuals exhausted, weak or injured. The dead are regularly removed to avoid deterring potential buyers. Release is not the end of the ordeal, with between half and 90% of birds not surviving to enjoy their renewed freedom.
Many don't even get a peaceful (if unnecessary) death. Sellers with long sticks coated with glue pluck exhausted birds from trees late into the night, while children search every nook and cranny, swiftly grabbing birds by hand. Birds are back in cages in no time, on sale for another 'release'. During popular Buddhist festivals, such as Vesak, thousands are thus literally worked to death.
Releasing birds is inexpensive; numbers are what makes the trade profitable. A single vendor can sell up to 200 birds on a good day, earning in a month around three times Cambodia's minimum wage. Hunters can trap thousands of birds in a week and earn yet more than sellers. In spite of these relatively decent incomes, neither sellers nor hunters feel financially secure. Meanwhile, birds are caught in such large numbers that species once common arebecoming rare and endangered ones are edging closer to extinction.
Influential monks have called for people to stop releasing animals, with mixed results. Wildlife conservation organisations are similarly powerless as the practice, however illegal, is tolerated by the authorities. Practitioners remain oblivious to the shadows of the trade they support or choose to avert their eyes. Despite the contradiction with its intended purpose, merit release is as popular and as deadly as ever.
Yann Bigant is an independent photographer focusing on conservation stories in Southeast Asia. He previously worked within a conservation organisation, developing projects in Indonesia and organising scientific expeditions. His personal fine art work explores the relationships we develop with remote and overlooked landscapes, and has been exhibited in festivals and galleries. He is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.