Misplaced religious beliefs replace common sense, and caring for others becomes accessory.
It’s time to go. Your entire family, friends and foes are on the same path today. As a wave, you all move together in unison across forests, fields and rivers, in between mountains and buildings.
People on the ground see your crowd movement as a large, dark cloud; yet, every year, there are fewer of you… and more of them. It matters not, as you travel back home to warmer weather, together. It is where you were born and where you hope to reproduce and pass on your genes down to the next generation.
It is a long journey south, and while you have unfathomable endurance and seldom stop, the occasional break is needed. You spot a nice, open field next to a tree line which seems like the perfect spot to get a bit of shade whilst still being able to spot eventual predators from afar.
Barely landed on a weirdly straight and perfectly round tree branch without bark, you fall to the ground, taken down by a blow like you have never experienced before. The predator had remained hidden, lurking in the shadows. It is a human female, and you are trapped in her net. All your efforts to battle out of it are futile. A giant’s hand picks you up, wrapping your entire body in between its palm and fingers, and squeezes you into a small bamboo cage where two other small birds scream for escape.
Days of waiting under the harsh Thai sun, calling to your family and to your lost partner… in vain. You may be three prisoners in this joint, but the feeling of loneliness has never been so intense before in your life. You dehydrate slowly; your muscles start to atrophy; you cannot remove pests from your feathers due to the lack of room.
Days go by before a different human picks up the cage you are in, walks a few steps, then opens it out to a beautiful valley. Your inmate neighbour falls to the ground through the small opening, and crashes, dead. In free fall, you open your wings barely enough to be able to reach the lowest branch in a nearby bush. You start grooming, yet you know your fate: Either be eaten by a local rat, or be recaptured and stuck into a new cage in a never-ending cycle of suffering, until death finally releases you.
We are in Sukhothai, the famous ancient capital of the former Thai Empire where many temples have been left nearly untouched since their discovery. These are set in a scenic, lush green area at the center of the busy city. In the surrounding streets, people party for the Thai New Year by attacking each other with all the water they can find. As we cross the fence to the squared-in ancient city, calm, serenity and peacefulness take over. The main temple is the “Buddha Theatre”, a relatively new, open-air praying location for followers of Buddhism.
Here, the misalignment between beliefs and their resulting actions is a shock: In front of the Buddha, a lady sells tiny birds in even tinier cages, three to four of them crammed together, as well as many fishes and frogs in plastic bags filled to the brim with dirty water. I feel the urge to put on digital film human behaviour that does not make sense to me; she refuses that I take a photo… so I move further away and use my telephoto lens, not knowing if this practice is common, normal, part of the culture – or illegal.
Leaving this busy country, we travel into less touristy Laos and to the beautiful location of the Phousi Temple, set at the top of a small hill in Luang Prabang. This time, I am ready to record all that I witness: Camera in hand, the climb to the top of the mount is easy, yet I am sweating profusely from the intense humid heat. Monks come down as tourists go up, many of which pile up in front of a magnificent, colourful sunset. Most of them are on their phone, waiting for the right moment and preparing their next Instagram post.
At the entrance of the tiny temple, a lady sells drinks, snacks and fans. It takes me a few seconds to realise that she also sells tiny cages with three tiny birds in each. A beautiful display in front of the temple, the cages are made of colourfully painted bamboo and are so tight that the birds can’t move inside them. At the back of the temple, in a semi-hidden location with a view on the valley, Chinese and South East Asian tourists are holding cages, preparing to release the birds after having shown their respects to the Buddha.
Clearly, they are in need of luck: Each person has at least one cage with three birds in it. Their bright smiles show their happiness at my interest in the scene, and nonchalantly pose for pictures as they open the cages with great difficulty, not finding the opening and hurting the birds in the process. When nothing flies out, they shake the cage so the birds, not even the size of a closed fist drop out most of the time falling to the ground, and some other times flying one or two meters to the nearest branch.
One man is taking longer than usual. Everyone is waiting for him to finally get some luck… some get inpatient. When he finally opens his prized cage, nothing comes out. He goes back to the “bird-selling lady”: One of the birds is dead, and he gets a free cage replacement – a prime example of luck “fully refunded or exchanged”. He tries his luck again and this time the birds leave, land in the small bushes just below, and start to groom and shake their wings.
The empty cages are left either on the ground or in a small tree, their beautiful colours heavily contrasting with their dark purpose. The sun sets, tourists take their selfies. Some leave luckier than others.
The bird-releasing at temples happens everywhere where the Buddha is revered: For the followers of Buddhism, doing a good deed brings good luck. These practices have recently been reported on by Khurshid Bhathena of Beauty Without Cruelty – India in the Summer 2019 : The birds are munias (of which most species are of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List), which look like small sparrows, and are sold one-by-one or in cages of up to 20 birds at the temple in Bodhgaya, India, for a price ranging from 100 to 1,000 Indian Rupees (USD 1.4 to USD 14). In India too, considerations about where the birds come from or how they have been caught are nonexistent. Before they can be released, the birds first have to be captured; this mostly happens on their migration paths, henceforth disrupting their patterns and potential for survival. Once released, those that survive the ordeal are tired and starved, and cannot fly yet, which makes them either a free meal for local rats, or a prime target for reincarceration.
It is reported that over 100 bird species of Asia are now at critical risk or endangered out of the 2,700 species that reportedly occur in the region. This analysis covers all of Asia, from northern Russia down to Indonesia, so the range of reasons for this extinction of species is extraordinary. Moreover, the most common birds are not usually the primary concern of conversationalists, so it is difficult to know if the birds used in these religious practices are just the local “pigeons” or endangered species.
In 2017, it was reported by IUCN that over 700,000 birds go through the deadly practice of bird-cage release every year in Southeast Asia, with 57 species in Cambodia alone (including “near-threatened Asian golden weaver and the vulnerable yellow-breasted bunting”). Moreover, “SE Asia has the highest proportion globally, in addition to absolute number of its migratory species, which are classed as threatened […]”.
So what can we do? When drawing conclusions from this experience and taking them back home, let us not forget that change at the individual level, when compounded to a nation’s size, can transform the world. Here are three concrete steps that you can take immediately, in your personal, everyday life:
- Never sponsor such actions: Buying these cages, even if motivated by the good intention of releasing the birds, only encourages the sellers to continue such practices
- Do as the British and set up bird feeders outside your home: It will attract beautiful wildlife closer to your home, and it will help boost biodiversity. Do consider the impact of this action, though: In the medium term (sometimes in the space of a few months), wild animals could become dependent on humans for food, which is also not desirable
- Learn, participate and share: Go on a walk in your nearest forest or park, and try to spot all the wildlife there, even the tiniest ones such as the insects; enjoy a short moment of observing them in their natural environment, learn which species they are, and then record your sightings in Citizen Science databases to help scientists gather data to better understand how species evolve in your area – and which ones need protection. The Our Planet + iNaturalist app “Seek” is like Shazam for Nature – try it out!