Expert says Buddhist bird release may pose health risks
For many Buddhists the practice of purchasing caged birds to set free is a time-honored
tradition - a way to earn celestial merit and ward off danger. But a wildlife expert
says the thousands of cooped-up birds awaiting redemption along the banks of the
Tonle Sap may represent a grave public health concern.
Birds await redemption on the Tonle Sap waterfront. For less than 2000 riel they can be bought and freed. But many are exhausted by their confinement and some die soon after their release.
According to Martin Gilbert, Field Veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society
(WCS), the trade in wild birds is exposing Phnom Penh to a deadly mixture of diseases
that could spread to poultry and, eventually, humans.
Birds collected from rural Cambodia are available at market stalls along Phnom Penh's
riverfront area. Among the diseases they may harbor are bird flu, Newcastle disease
and salmonella, Gilbert said.
On major holidays there can be thousands of wild birds of many species concentrated
in a small area. For around 2000 riel they can be bought and released. Many birds
are exhausted by their confinement and some perish shortly after their release, Gilbert
He also said that children have even been seen buying birds to eat raw at the riverfront.
"Avian Influenza H5N1 is on people's minds at present, and wild bird surveillance
has isolated the virus in scaly-breasted munia, the species most commonly sold in
the cages," Gilbert said. The munia is also known as the spice finch.
Gilbert said the bird sellers are constantly resupplied with new birds as their stock
is released, providing a perfect environment for diseases to become rampant.
"A virulent virus in a closed population quickly runs out of susceptible hosts
and so burns itself out," he said. "However, when you continuously feed
new, unexposed birds into the system you are effectively adding more fuel to the
"The wild bird trade may actively promote the emergence of more virulent viruses."
Bird trader Long Sopha, 47, has been peddling birds since 1980. On most days she
sells between 200 and 300. During Buddhist holy days this number can reach almost
"I sell to people who believe that when we free the birds, their dangers are
sent away from them," Sopha said.
"I have heard about bird flu, but I am not concerned. I am careful. I have never
An official from the Ministry of Agriculture said the government plans to test all
varieties of birds to see if there is any disease and to seek help in training Cambodian
doctors to identify diseases. But, he said, there is no problem at present.
The sale of wild birds is illegal in Cambodia. Freeing birds to earn merit, however,
is a traditional Khmer Buddhist practice with strong links to the Royal Family, Gilbert
said. Therefore any change would have to come from a shift in the beliefs of the
The practice is not yet sufficiently monitored, but the WCS hopes to begin testing
within the next few weeks.
"Providing those that promote the practice with information outlining any health
risks posed would enable them to make an informed decision," Gilbert said.