On a sunny morning in late June, 50-year-old Liu Yidan prayed to Buddha as usual at Dabei Temple in Tianjin, a coastal municipality near Beijing. But this time she was pleased to see that there were no bird sellers crowding the alley surrounding the temple.
“Other Buddhists and I spent over a million yuan ($150,000) buying and releasing birds from these sellers from 2008 to 2014,” Liu told Sixth Tone.
Life release, or fangsheng in Chinese, is the traditional Buddhist practice of freeing captive creatures. The participants believe that by releasing the animals, they generate spiritual merits. But though the original intention of the practice was to show compassion to caged creatures, the popularity of the ceremony has fueled a black market that does far more harm than good to wildlife — and many Buddhists are becoming aware of the contradiction.
Liu, along with other environmentalists and animal rights defenders around the country, has been pushing the government to restrict the practice. On July 2, China announced an amendment to the 1989 Wildlife Protection Law that will regulate the practice of fangsheng. The amendment, which will take effect on January 1, 2017, states: “The arbitrary release of wild animals, if causing damage to humans or property or harm to the ecosystem, shall bear legal responsibility.”
Originally from northeastern Jilin province, Liu moved to Tianjin with her husband in 1991 and opened a restaurant. When Liu became a Buddhist and a vegetarian in 2007, she closed the restaurant, and the lives of all the animals killed for her business began to weigh on her conscience.
Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
“I felt ashamed and regretful,” said Liu. So she started taking part in fangsheng to make amends. “I wanted to dedicate all merits to the lives I took in the past,” she said.
Liu’s first experience with fangsheng involved two turtles which cost her 30 yuan. “After I released the turtles into the river, they stretched their necks long and seemed so happy,” Liu recalled.
A year later, another practitioner told Liu that it was much cheaper to buy birds from the bird market in Hongqiao District in Tianjin. Most birds there cost just a few jiao (10 jiao make 1 yuan). Liu went there every morning during the migration season to release birds directly from the market. “Bird sellers counted the number of birds we released, and we paid them on the spot,” she said. On average, Liu and other Buddhists in Tianjin would release a few hundred birds each day, but on some days they would release up to 10,000 birds.
“The bird sellers told me that if I didn’t buy these birds, they would suffocate them in woven bags right in front of me,” said Liu.
In six years of releasing birds, it didn’t occur to Liu to report illegal bird sellers to the police. There was no law to protect the birds then, so police wouldn’t have had grounds to take action anyway.
Yet the new amendment to the Wildlife Protection Law will protect not only species which are rare or near extinction, but also species which have ecological, scientific, and social value, including the sparrows and turtledoves sold in the market.
Liu Yidan handles birdcages found in the wild on the balcony of her apartment in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Liu came to realize the truth in 2014 after a short conversation with one of the bird sellers in the market. She was told that the birds she had bought and released were just the tip of the iceberg: There were at least five bird markets in Tianjin. Truckloads of birds came to the market from poachers all over Tianjin and the neighboring province of Hebei. The daily turnover could reach hundreds of thousands of yuan.
“I was suddenly awakened,” said Liu. She realized the practice of fangsheng just created opportunities for the black market: “The more birds we buy, the more people will capture them to sell to us.”
Liu then gathered together everyone who took part in fangsheng. “If all the Buddhists can come out and protect the birds instead of releasing them, then these poachers and peddlers won’t be so rampant,” she said.
Officials estimate around 200 million fish, snakes, turtles, birds, and ants are released each year in China. He Yong, the public relations director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in China, told Sixth Tone that the practice of fangsheng has caused a boom in the illegal trade in wildlife. “It helps to build the profit chain and eventually stimulates increased breeding, capture, and selling,” He said.
In the past two years, Liu and her team have searched for and found over 10,000 bird nets and traps in the fields and forests of Tianjin and Hebei. She has reported almost 400 cases to the police, who at first didn’t take any action or even file records, instead telling her to contact the forestry bureau or conservation organizations. When Liu called the police in early 2014 about bird nets she had found, they laughed at her: “They thought it was a joke to arrest bird sellers or poachers because they said they ate birds themselves.”
Liu Yidan finds a bird net near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
But through continuous patrolling and reporting, Liu and other volunteers drew attention to the illegal bird trade. In September 2014, the state-run national television network CCTV interviewed Liu for their exposé on the rampant trade of migratory birds in Tianjin. One month later, the local government announced a regulation banning hunting from March to May and from September to November. Catching even one bird during the “sanctuary season” is a crime.
It was the first time that Tianjin had implemented heavy penalties for illegal bird hunting. Though the new regulation did not offer year-round protection, “it was progress from nothing to something,” said Liu. According to China’s 1997 criminal law, violating hunting regulations could result in up to three years’ imprisonment.
The new Wildlife Protection Law extends Tianjin’s protections beyond its borders to the rest of the country, prohibiting hunting and poaching during wildlife migration seasons. But the law is only as effective as its enforcement, which in the past has been lacking. “People didn’t take birds seriously, and nobody reported illegal hunting and selling to the police,” Liu explained.
Since October 2014, Liu has registered over 30 criminal cases. She reported one poacher, 60-year-old Tianjin native Xiao Xiquan, after finding over a hundred bird traps in his melon field in Chenzui Village, in the northwestern part of Tianjin. Xiao was detained for seven days last fall before being released on bail.
While he was detained, Xiao developed a sympathy for the animals he had captured. In a video Liu recorded, Xiao confessed that he lost 15 kilograms during the week he was jailed. “I felt like a bird in a cage,” he said. When Liu visited Xiao’s melon field again in June, she didn’t find any bird traps or nets.
Police officers examine bird nets Liu discovered near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Liu said many poachers in Tianjin have given up catching birds, as they’re afraid of being caught by the police. “Most poachers are farmers who are simple, honest people,” said Liu, “They have been catching and selling birds for generations without any clue that it now breaks the law.”
Liu has also persuaded many of the Buddhists who used to release birds with her to donate money to protecting birds instead. Zhou Meiqiang, another Tianjin Buddhist, followed Liu’s lead. In spring and fall, he drives Liu and other volunteers all over Tianjin to search for bird nets and traps. “When we had just started, we were finding over a dozen bird traps a day,” Zhou said. Now they can hardly find any.
In spite of their effort, a few stubborn poachers remain. While patrolling on June 30, Liu spotted a bird net in a field behind the Tianjin West Railway Station. “This is the fourth time we’ve found a net in this location, yet we’ve never managed to catch the poacher,” she said. But police showed up within 10 minutes of Liu’s call and rolled up the bird net while she familiarized them with the new anti-poaching regulations.
In the past two years — and with financial support from Beijing-based wildlife protection NGO Let Birds Fly — Liu and other volunteers in Tianjin have freed at least 100,000 birds from poachers. More significantly, dozens of poachers have decided to stop catching birds after being persuaded by Liu and her team. “These people could easily catch over 300 birds a day during the migration season,” said Liu.
More and more Buddhists are realizing that in the long run, protecting birds from poaching saves more lives than releasing birds from cages. Liu would like to extend her patrol and protection to other areas in the country. But money is a big issue, she told Sixth Tone. “We need more financial support from NGOs and the public.” Liu hopes the new national law will encourage more people to take part in protecting wildlife and to donate to the cause.
Liu Yidan holds an electronic device that plays sounds to attract birds, Tianjin, June 30, 2016. She has found dozens of sound traps set by poachers in the wild. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Liu and her team usually patrol from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. When she is not in the field, she cooks for her kids, does housework, and attends Buddhist ceremonies. Patrolling has taken a toll on Liu’s health: Her knees and legs ache constantly. But she won’t give up. “I hope it will be more and more difficult for me to find bird nets and traps in the field,” she said.
Four days after the revised national law was announced, Liu came across a group releasing wild birds in front of Dabei Temple. She approached them immediately. “People who release birds will be punished by law,” she told the group. “We have to destroy the profit chain behind fangsheng.”
With contributions from Shi Yi.
(Header image: Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone)