'Mercy release' leads to ill fate for Hong Kong turtles

In Hong Kong, thousands of marine animals are freed every May in the lead up to Buddha’s birthday.

The practice, known as “mercy release”, is believed to bring good fortune to people.

However, the good intentions of the superstitious can often result in more harm to the animals, than good.

Many of them are intentionally captured and sold just to be set free.

They can get hurt and be left stranded in murky waterways where they normally don't belong.

Sean Lai is the founder of Hong Kong Abandoned Tortoise Concern Group.

He warns that releasing turtles in catchwater drains or ponds can kill them.

“If they used to be cared for by humans, they won't be able to hunt in the wild, they may not be able to catch the fish, shrimp, or food they need, then they'll starve to death. Or due to the change of weather, they might freeze to death or die from the heat.”

Lai and his group of volunteers snorkeled through muddy waters to save dozens of turtles left there by residents.

They are now nursing more than 60 injured turtles in their homes.

They also bury the dead turtles that did not survive long enough to be rescued.

While mercy release is not illegal in the city, authorities say the practice can spread diseases and poses a risk to ecosystems.

Paul Crow is a senior conservationist at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

“One, it's just directly, ecosystems that are receiving non-native animals can be changed by the arrival of those animals if they manage to survive…Potential disease, bacteria, virus, parasites from other countries, from the collection sources are all getting dumped without screening, or without sort of consideration of the public health risk as well."

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

The Hong Kong Buddhist Association slams the practice as “inappropriate”, and recommends alternatives like adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.