A Wing and a Prayer

The spiritual practice of “merit release” — freeing captive animals to boost one’s karma — sounds pleasing in theory. In practice, it means that hundreds of thousands of wild birds and other creatures are captured every year just to satisfy religious followers seeking to release the animals again. And the activity could have health consequences: researchers have now found that many of these birds carry pathogens, increasing the chances of transmission from animals to people.

Merit release is common in Asia and is “believed to be the most powerful means of attaining spiritual merit,” the authors write in Biological Conservation. A thriving trade has sprung up to meet the demand for captive animals. One study in Hong Kong, for example, found that about 680,000 to 1,050,000 birds were sold each year for merit release.

The researchers visited merit release vendors at two sites in Cambodia, one at a Buddhist temple and the other near a shrine. The team counted the birds for sale from 2006 to 2007 and collected samples from the animals. The samples were then tested for avian influenza virus and three other pathogens.

More than 680,000 birds were likely sold per year, the authors estimate. Tests of 414 birds revealed that about 10 percent were infected with avian flu virus. The team also found the pathogenic bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci in 1 percent of the animals and Mycobacterium genavense in 4 percent. “The presence of pathogenic viruses and bacteria among birds available for merit release is a concern both to wild bird populations and to humans involved in the trade,” the authors write. Roberta Kwok | 4 July 2012

Source: Gilbert, M. et al. 2012. Characterizing the trade of wild birds for merit release in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and associated risks to health and ecology. Biological Conservation doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2012.04.024.

Image © yuliang11 | iStockPhoto.com

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