The unnecessary cruelty of Buddhist Fang Sheng.

On a recent trip to Cambodia I was saddened to see that the practice of releasing wild caught birds and other animals for merit is still flourishing. The tradition is variously called Fang Sheng, life release or merit releasing. Vendors on the waterfront in Phnom Penh near the Royal Palace and at the iconic temple of Wat Phnom were being kept busy with a stream of worshippers eager to buy. Cages containing thousands of stressed birds were lined up alongside the flower sellers and buyers were oblivious to their plight which seems at odds with Buddhist beliefs and doctrines.

Unfortunately the need to give life to another being in order to obtain good karma and cleanse ones past sins appears to override any consideration of the welfare of the animals that they buy and immediately release. The age old tradition dating back to at least the sixth century allegedly began with devotees buying animals destined for slaughter and literally saving their lives.

Now it is purely a trade in which turtles, snails, crabs, eels, snakes and live birds are made captive and sold for financial gain. The practice is prevalent across Asia and seems to be on the increase and causes more animal suffering than it prevents, undermining the original point of the ritual to save a life in danger.

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Devotee carrying cage of birds into temple, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Photo: John Brookland

Trapping wild birds for the trade is indiscriminate. A recent study of the trade in Cambodia estimates 770,000 birds of 57 species are involved, many of which are endangered species ranging from owls and parakeets to finches and swifts. 10% tested positive for H5N1 bird flu which can cause illness in humans. In China alone it is estimated that 200 million animals are “freed” each year.

Sellers see no harm in it

The vendors use large “storage” cages containing over 400 small birds and then dispense a dozen or so into takeaway cages to take into the temple for blessing. This involves manhandling them which causes panic,injuries and stress. The vendors see no harm in it and believe the birds do not suffer.

Although the birds have food and water and the cages appear relatively clean it is the stress of capture, transport, overcrowding and constant manhandling that causes death and injury.

I watched in horror as one man dipped his cage of newly acquired birds in the nearby river to freshen them up and I saw another putting a dozen distressed finches into a sealed clear plastic bag as though they we produce from a supermarket.

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This man put live finches into a sealed plastic bag. Photo: John Brookland

In Thailand the SPCA have managed to negotiate some cooperation from Buddhist temples who are trying to ban or remove sellers from outside their complexes but this is not widespread. Buddhists in the UK and USA also practice Fang Sheng often with dire consequences. In 2017, two London Buddhists received £28,000 in fines for a mass release of hundreds of non native lobsters and crabs into the sea from a boat off Brighton causing “untold damage” to marine life.

Consign the ritual to history

The Buddhist religion supposedly venerates the life of all beings and is against suffering and many temples help street dogs by feeding them and allowing them to rest in their compounds. They collect food and feed zoo animals and carry out other compassionate acts to animals. But at the same time monks get involved in the wildlife smuggling trade and keep monkeys and other animals confined in awful cages in their temple complexes. It is perhaps time for the Buddhist hierarchy to look at their mixed approach to their beliefs and consign practices like Fang Sheng to history.

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In the company of the Kulen Forest elephants.

I recently had the great pleasure to meet and spend the day with a group of fourteen Asian elephants at the Kulen Elephant Forest in Cambodia, a new retirement sanctuary for the Angkor Wat elephants who spent most of their lives giving tourist rides round the temples.

Wild elephants are rapidly declining in Cambodia with only 600 inhabiting small pockets of forest which do not allow any integration. There are also 75 captive elephants with various conservation organisations encouraging owners to relinquish them. Fourteen of these reside at the new 530 acre Kulen Elephant Forest which opened in January 2020, where they can finally roam relatively free and lead a semi-natural life.

Being introduced to some of the elephants before taking a walk with them. Photo: John Brookland

The Kulen Community Forest has mostly disappeared and is situated an hours drive north of Siem Reap in the Kulen Mountain foothills. The forest belongs to the Bos Thom Community and was being heavily deforested for agricultural purposes with only 1100 acres remaining, until Kulen Forest Asia stepped in and negotiated with the villagers to take responsibility for and protect 530 acres to provide a home for the elephants. Cambodia is third on the list of countries deforesting at an alarming rate. The reserve is operated with their permission and cooperation and in return the villagers receive employment and payments for community projects from the tourist revenue and are paid for crops grown to feed the elephants.

They were “buddied” up and seemed devoted to each other. Photo: John Brookland

On arrival we hiked with a guide for twenty minutes through cultivated land and then suddenly into the forest to the newly built headquarters where we were greeted before being “introduced” to four of the elephants and told about their characters and how to act round them. I have been lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in the presence of elephants in Africa and Asia, but I am still wowed by their size, dignity, patience and gentleness. I am always drawn to their round piercing, but friendly eyes and just being around them is more relaxing than any spa. I will never understand how anyone can kill or mistreat them.

The elephants, when first brought to the reserve, were allowed to choose partners and are “buddied” up with each pair appearing to be devoted to each other. They have a dedicated mahout who spends dawn to dusk with them making sure they come to no harm. They are allowed as much freedom as possible and chance to socialise and indulge natural behaviours. It is of course impossible for them to do completely as they please as there are no fences or barriers. Unfortunately they can never become truly “wild” again, but they can enjoy roaming the forest grazing, taking dust and mud baths, swimming and anything else they desire to do with the exception of one thing – damage the trees. Left to their own devices they would destroy the forest very quickly so the mahout gives them a shout when they sneakily start pulling branches down. They are fed daily with bulk feed and added supplements to keep them healthy and the operation is overseen by an elephant specialist.

Enjoying a mud bath in the forest. Photo: John Brookland

Watching and talking to the mahouts it was obvious they were devoted to the elephants and their welfare and I could see they took pleasure in keeping the elephants happy often going out of their way to provide treats like chopping up a coconut for them. The elephants were also completely at ease with them and visitors like ourselves, but being such large creatures it can be a danger to be around them and you need to act sensibly.

Our day with the elephants involved trekking through the forest with them, watching them bathe and have a mud bath and just chilling out with them. They happily joined us for a picnic and went mad with expectation like kids when we prepared rice ball treats containing supplements for them. We were ecstatic and the elephants appeared happy and contented as well.

Enjoying a bath in the newly created lake at Kulen Elephant Forest. Photo: John Brookland

When contemplating visiting so-called “sanctuaries” many animal welfarists and animal rights advocates can be put off which is a shame, but with a little research it is possible to weed out the genuine conservation and welfare operations. Kulen Forest is quick to point out that there “are no tricks, no riding, but offer a fun, educational approach to elephant conservation and contribute as much as possible to preserving the remaining elephants of Cambodia”.

Using tourist revenue to provide income for the local community while preserving forest and habitat and providing a safe haven for captive working elephants seems to be a win win solution. Educating and getting the cooperation of local people through financial gain may not be for all conservation purists and yes, its a shame the elephants cannot be left to roam freely in peace, but these days it has got to be about compromise if we are going to “save” animals and habitat and provide them with a better life.

Looking for the rice balls when joining us for lunch