"Mercy" Release

Download the Religious Release PosterDownload the Religious Release Poster“Mercy release” is understood as a religious ritual. Many Buddhists and Taoists believe that releasing captured animals can create good karma and bring good fortune. 

Every year, many people all over the world release birds and other animals in an act of 'making merit'. The release of animals during special events such as the Buddha’s birthday or Vesak Day is supposed to represent the symbolic liberation of the captured, imprisoned and tortured.

However, an act thought to help preserve animals’ lives in fact does physical harm to the animals and threatens ecological balance. 


“Mercy release” has grown in scale and been commercialised with animals now being hunted, bred then bought and discarded regularly and frequently in Hong Kong. 

 Case study: "Mercy" release at Tsuen Wan

Between July and September 2016, the SPCA received over 300 freshwater red-eared sliders that had been dumped in the sea by practitioners of “mercy release”. 

What animals are released in Hong Kong?

Two surveys have been conducted by Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) and Hong Kong University (HKU) about animal release by religious organisations in Hong Kong.

After the outbreak of avian flu in Hong Kong, the KFBG study found that fish and seafood replaced birds as the most popular animals for release.



HKU (2005)

KFBG (2010)

Organisations that released animals

78 (34%)

14 (36%)

Organisations that did not release animals

151 (66%)

25 (64%)


Animals released HKU (2005) KFBG (2010)
Birds only 17 (22%) 0
Fish and seafood 16 (21%) 8 (57%)
Birds, fish and seafood 29 (37%) 4 (29%)
Other 4 (5%) 0
Total 78 (100%) 14 (100%)


2005: HKU Survey

The “Religious Release of Birds in Hong Kong” (Chan 2006) is the most detailed study of the practice in Hong Kong.

  • 229 religious organisations were surveyed; 78 practiced animal release. Of these, 90% were Buddhist organisations.
  • Birds were the most popular animals to be released (21%)
  • It was estimated that up to 1 million birds were being sold through bird shops and suppliers every year for this practice.
  • Hundreds of dead birds were found at release sites, including over 200 dead sparrows released at Tai Mo Shan and 170 dead Japanese White Eyes at Pat Sin Leng Country Park.

© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

2010: KFBG Survey

Researchers at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden followed up the HKU study with a telephone survey with Buddhist organisations in 2010.

39 agreed to be surveyed: 14 practiced animal released; 25 did not.
Though most organisations said the quantity depended on the number of participants and donations, one organisation released about 500kg (half a tonne) of animals.
Favourite places for such activities - locations near Sai Kung, Tsing Ma Bridge, Stanley, North Point Pier, coast of Lamma Island
Due to earlier outbreaks of avian flu in Hong Kong, this study found that fish and seafood have replaced birds as the most popular animals for release.

How many animals are released in Hong Kong for mercy release?

There are no figures regarding animals used for “mercy release” activities.© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

According to an HKU study, prior to the outbreak of avian flu in 2006, it was estimated up to 1 million birds were being imported into Hong Kong for release.

"Mercy" Release at Tsuen Wan 

Based on their uniform size, it is suspected that the red-eared sliders released in Tsuen Wan (see above) were bred for food.

Hong Kong imports a huge number of animals every year for the pet and food trade. In 2014, Hong Kong imported over 800,000 reptiles for the pet trade and more than 54,000 kilograms of turtles for the food trade.

Red-eared sliders are reared in the millions to supply the food trade in Asia. In Hong Kong, turtle shells are often used to make turtle jelly (guai lin gou/龜苓膏).

With red-eared sliders being sold for as little as HK$20 each, the easy availability of large numbers of cheap animals makes “mercy release” a very profitable business.

How does “mercy release” harm animals?

Don’t be duped into believing that “mercy release” is an act of compassion. Many of these animals are bred for the food trade and are chosen for release as they are available cheaply in large quantities. Others are hunted from the wild in large numbers, transported long distances in cramped conditions and many often die after release.

“Mercy release” is cruel

“It may seem bizarre that a religious practice intended to increase the welfare of birds should result in cruel treatment on such a massive scale, but individual releasers do not see the whole process and are thus able to believe that they are releasing birds from cruel confinement to a better life in nature.

Many do not realize that they are the cause of the confinement and that few birds survive after release.”

– “Religious Release of Birds in Hong Kong”, pp 229


  • Many animals have no skills to survive in the wild and often will fail to find food.
  • Weakened and sick after transportation and sale, many animals die shortly after release.
  • Local conservation groups regularly find the dead bodies of commonly released turtles, fish and frogs in Hong Kong’s precious rivers and streams after the Buddha’s birthday.

Spreads disease to Hong Kong’s wildlife 

© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden© Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

One example of the diseases such releases bring is the Chytrid fungus, a deadly fungus that kills frogs all over the world. The Chytrid fungus has already been found in food frog trade in Hong Kong.

Analysis of food frog shipments from Hong Kong to the US found that 4 out of 5 shipments carried the Chytrid Fungus.

The release of thousands of such frogs into the country side means Hong Kong’s frog species are all at risk, including the endangered Romer’s Tree Frog.

Releases exotic predators that kills Hong Kong’s wildlife

© School of Biological Sciences, HKU© School of Biological Sciences, HKU

When aggressive species like the red-eared sliders do survive, they expose Hong Kong’s native populations to disease and compete with them for survival.

One of the world’s top ten invasive species, the red eared slider has now replaced local turtle species as the most common turtle in Hong Kong’s country parks.

Some released animals do not even occur in the wild

© Allen To© Allen ToA popular species for release, the Sabah grouper or “Lung Dan” (沙巴龍躉) is cross-bred from two species for the food trade. It does not exist in the wild.

According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF HK), these fast-growing, carnivorous fish are now living in Hong Kong’s reefs, with unknown consequences for local fish species.

Why is “Mercy release” not wildlife conservation?

"Mercy release" is not wildlife conservation

  • In wildlife conservation, the successful release of animals back into the wild is a long process.
  • It involves extensive guidelines and preparation
  • One of the key considerations is to protect the safety and health of the species being released and the ecosystem that it is being released into.
  • This process often involves ecologists, veterinarians and other conservation professionals.

For more information on guidelines for animal release, please see the International Union For Conservation’s(IUCN)Guidelines on Conservation Translocations

What laws are there to stop this practice?

Currently, the release of animals causing their suffering is only prosecutable under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance Cap. 169. It carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment and a $200,000 fine. However, once animals have been released, it is hard to prove.

In 2014, Taiwan implemented legislation to ban the unauthorised release of any animal into the wild, after decades of struggling with the ecological damage caused by widespread dumping of animals by the “mercy release” industry.

In 2005, it was already estimated that 20 million animals were being released into Taiwan’s countryside every year and the religious release business was valued at US$6 million. 

Taiwan, Macau and Singapore have legislation that bans the unauthorised release of animals. The SPCA believes that there should be similar legislation in Hong Kong. 

Show your compassion in other ways

Buying animals to “release” just increases the demand and consequent suffering.

  • Consuming fewer animal products every day can go a long way to reduce demand.
  • Practise compassion daily – reflect on your daily actions and make changes that can truly reduce animal suffering.
  • Support genuine conservation activities that protect Hong Kong’s biodiversity and improve the welfare of Hong Kong’s animals.