Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 2 News List

Conference pans animal releases

NOT THE NUMBERS Although some Buddhist organizations free large quantities of fish, it is the introduction of non-native species that harms the environment the most

By Angelica Oung  /  STAFF REPORTER

Although fangsheng (放生), or the release of animals for religious reasons, purports to save life, environmentalists and biologists said yesterday that the practice is putting delicate ecosystems in peril.

Buddhist organizations such as the China Preserve Life Association regularly release a large number of fish into the nation's streams and oceans.

But Chen Yi-hsiung (陳義雄) of National Taiwan Ocean University said at the International Conference on Religion, Animals and Environment in Taipei yesterday that it was not the number of fish released into the wild that causes the most harm, but rather the possibility that invasive exotic species are inadvertently introduced into habitats.

Freshwater habitats such as rivers, streams and lakes are the most vulnerable, Chen said.

Chen presented a study at the conference on the impact of religious releases on stream habitats.

"There are some rivers in Taiwan where 98 fish out of 100 are South American cichlids (吳郭魚)," he said. "I am a Buddhist myself, but I am totally against the non-professional release of animal life into the wild. Animal release is a destructive practice that is not in the basic tenets of Buddhism."

Those who wish to preserve life should preserve wild habitat instead, Chen said.

"That would be a positive outlet for the impulse to be merciful," he said.

The conference, held at the Academia Sinica, aimed to stimulate dialogue on the use of animals in religious practice, said Chu Ruey-ling (朱瑞玲), the conference's convener and a researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology.

"We have invited biologists, anthropologists, religious leaders and animal rights activists to start a conversation, not to offer a conclusion," she said.

"The majority of Buddhists do not practise animal release and our studies show that less than 5 percent of Taiwanese have participated in fangsheng ceremonies," she said.

Mainstream Buddhist organizations are increasingly shunning the practice of religious animal release in the face of increasing criticism by environmentalists.

However, new groups specializing in fangsheng have come into existence, said Lin Pen-hsuan (林本炫), an associate professor of social and economic studies at National United University.

"Without any disrespect to religion, we analyze the religious world using the metaphor of a marketplace," Lin said. "As long as the demand for fangsheng exists, new firms will supply the product to meet the demand."

"A certain portion of the population believes in animal release as a way of accumulating merit," he said. "If they get sick, they might try western medicine, Chinese medicine and then fangsheng, if nothing else works."

Some mainstream Buddhist organizations that no longer practice fangsheng are still loathe to condemn it, Lin said, while placing government regulations on the practice could infringe on the right to religious freedom.

"We need more education on the negative repercussions of fangsheng in order to change attitudes," he said.

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