Volunteers rescue turtles after “mercy release” in Hong Kong

A group of volunteers rescued dozens of red-eared slider turtles from a pond near a popular hiking site in Hong Kong’s rural Tai Po district.

With snorkels, nets and gloves, the volunteers went through the muddy water to find dozens of turtles left there by residents.

The turtles were ‘released’ into the wild through a practice known as “mercy release”, a concept rooted in a Buddhist belief that freeing animals brings good fortune.

But many animals are intentionally captured and sold just to be set free, animal experts said. The turtles often get hurt or even die after being left in waterways.

Thousands of animals are affected every year in May, leading up to the Buddha’s birthday on May 19, conservation experts said.

“It’s not suitable for these turtles to live in places like these catchwater drains or ponds because they are not local Hong Kong species,” said Sean Lai, who runs a group to help abandoned turtles.

“If they used to be cared for by humans, they won’t be able to hunt in the wild. They’ll starve to death. Or due to the change of weather, they might freeze to death or die from the heat,” Lai said.

Lai said at least 28 out of the over 80 turtles his group found were dead. Some had “mercy release” written on their shells in Chinese characters.

He said his volunteers were taking care of more than 60 injured turtles – from treating skin infections to broken shells – and that the animals would be put up for adoption when they returned to health.

“Hong Kong is facing a serious situation of people mercy releasing turtles. A lot of religious devotees would buy a large number of turtles and release them into rivers, streams, beaches, and country parks,” Lai said.

Other animals commonly involved in mercy releases in Hong Kong are frogs, insects, baby birds and fish.

Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said that while mercy release is not illegal, it could be detrimental to animal welfare and spread diseases.

If the practice causes unnecessary suffering to animals, it may also breach the city’s legislation to prevent cruelty to animals, the department said.

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The Hong Kong Buddhist Association said it did not urge people to release animals. Some “inappropriate practices” had caused physical harm to animals, threatened the environmental balance and led to adverse criticism.

“We hope more people can understand the traditional way of mercy release is not the only way to help animals,” the association said. They recommend alternatives such as “adopting a vegetarian lifestyle and protecting and enhancing wildlife habitats.”

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