Thai New Year Holiday Prompts Renewed Appeal to Stop Buddhist Life-Release Practice


Alongside the traditional Thai New Year celebrations known as Songkran, Thailand’s Department of Fisheries issued a warning against the practice of releasing fish and turtles into local waterways—commonly known in Thai as “ploi pla.” Despite the belief that the practice brings the practitioner good merit, government officials caution that it can lead to ecological damage.


Department of Fisheries chief Bancha Sukkaew emphasized the need to avoid releasing non-native species—including certain breeds of catfish, pet fish, cichlids, turtles, and crayfish—into natural water bodies. He noted that some of these species may not be suited to survive in their new environment, while others could disrupt the existing ecosystem.

“Alien species can cause huge damage to the ecological system, which is costly to restore,” Sukkaew said. (Bangkok Post)

Releasing animals into the wild, often referred to as “life release,” is a common practice among Buddhists during major holidays and events, as it is believed to generate merit that can carry over into one’s next life and beyond. However, such acts can have unintended consequences. In a notable incident in 2021, the release of catfish into a river during a Buddhist holiday resulted in the deaths of many of the fish due to the impact of hitting concrete steps and the inability to survive in river water.


While some view releasing animals as a meritorious act, others, including a Buddhist monk interviewed by the South China Morning Post in 2020, argue that it is unethical to remove animals from their natural environment for the purpose of rerelease. “When you pay to release animals, you don’t perform a good deed. You do the opposite,” the monk said. “Many of these animals are taken from their environment so people can let them go. That’s not right.” (Time)

This debate underscores the complexities surrounding the tradition in Thailand of making merit through animal release during Buddhist holidays. Ecological experts have raised concerns about the introduction of invasive species into natural habitats through merit-making activities. The demand for animals to release has led to the emergence of shops selling captured fish, turtles, and birds, raising further ethical questions about the practice.

Across the region and beyond, environmental groups have urged Buddhists to reconsider the practice. In neighboring Cambodia, some species of birds that have become popular for the merit-making practice have seen their numbers decline precipitously.

Meanwhile, on the Tibetan Plateau, non-native fish released into rivers have become easy prey for otters. “Religious fish release may provide additional food resources for otters,” noted the authors of a 2020 study. (Live Science) The study also noted that the local authorities had banned the release of non-native fish, but people in the area seemed unaware of the law.

Adding to the ecological problems, some parts of Thailand are this year facing historic droughts. On the popular tourist island of Ko Samui, tap water has been scarce in recent days. “The water hasn’t run for two-and-a-half days now,” said barbershop owner Wachirawut Kulaphetkamthorn, who has been unable to use his shower. “Last year, the water came every other day, but this week, it hasn’t run for 2–3 days in a row.” (The Guardian)

The region is currently experiencing extreme heat, due in part to the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has brought unusually warm and dry conditions.

Source: Whitaker