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The concept of “making merit” by performing good deeds is a central element of Buddhist tradition and practice.

Rationale for the release of animals
In traditional rural communities during the dry months, as rice paddies, small ponds and other seasonal water bodies dried out, fish, turtles and other aquatic creatures would become trapped in small pockets of water.

While providing them with an easy opportunity to collect some welcome food, villagers would often also take some of the fish and turtles (surplus to their immediate food needs) from the drying up area and return them to a larger water body, stream or river that has water all year round, ensuring their survival.

If this was primarily motivated by a desire to make merit, or by the common-sense understanding of people that live off the land (which we would now call “local wisdom”), the effect was the same – it protected their food supply for future years.

Unfortunately in a faced-paced, high-stress world, the original meaning and significance behind the compassionate release of animals for merit-making has been lost with individuals frequently misunderstanding the rationale for doing so and seeking shortcuts to making merit.

The sale and purchase of all protected Thai wildlife species is illegal. And if foreign species have found their way onto the market through illegal wildlife trade, tourists and visitors who participate in the release of these animals are in fact contributing to the illegal import and trade in wildlife.

Help us keep wildlife in the wild. As an alternative to the release of turtles, birds and large creatures, we urge you to opt for the release of commercially-bred freshwater fish into ponds and rivers instead.

News Room sincerely thanks Dr. Robert Mather, Country Representative for WWF Thailand (World Wide Fund for Nature - Thailand Programme) for this introduction.


In Thailand, turtle release has been a traditional way of merit making for most of the Thais for all occasions, such as on birthdays, on auspicious occasions as well as when life is not going so well.

However, little is understood of how to release turtles and be confident that the freshwater turtles lead a good, long life thereafter.

  • Before you decide to release a turtle, embark on some soul-searching and ensure that it is absolutely necessary.
  • Do not buy from sellers with stacks of turtles piled up in a small bucket or container.

    Better still, do not buy at all as this promotes the trade in ‘recycled' turtles and tortoises. The creatures that you release into the wild in the belief that you are making merit are re-captured by the vendors within hours or the same day and re-sold to others. The cycle continues and the turtle/tortoise is deprived of its chance to live a normal life in the wild and ultimately dies of dehydration, starvation and infection.

    Just as you should not buy pet animals because you feel sorry for them, you should not buy captive animals that have been caught from the wild, in order to make merit by releasing them.
  • Check if they are freshwater turtles or tortoises. Tortoises are land animals. Do not release land tortoises into water; they will drown.
  • Just like us, turtles need air to breathe. Please do not transport turtles in plastic bags that are tightly tied.
  • Release only healthy turtles.
    If the turtle is not moving or is not responding, take it to the vet before you let it go. If you release the turtle when it is sick, it will drown. Look for wounds or signs of damage to the shell. If flesh hangs out from its shell, the turtle is sick and needs immediate attention. In the case of soft-shelled turtles, check for bacteria infection.

  • Make sure that there is a food source for the turtles so they don't starve to death.

    Is the species you are about to buy a freshwater turtle or a sea turtle?
    Sea (marine) turtles will die if placed in freshwater ponds, lakes and rivers.

    Is Is the species you are releasing a vegetarian or carnivorous?
    If in doubt, please do not purchase and release.

    Native species are protected by Thai law. Hence on many occasions, illegally imported turtle and tortoise species that are carnivorous are sold by vendors. However when these creatures are released into temple ponds, they are fed a vegetarian diet, such as ‘Morning Glory', and fruits and quickly starve to death.

    How to spot a starving turtle or tortoise? There is a huge, empty cavity between its fleshy body and shell.

  • Only release turtles in a place where there is water, a natural food source and a protected shoreline or a gentle slope. To remain healthy, turtles need to come on shore to bask in the sun. Releasing turtles into a temple pond with steep sides commits the turtle to a life of eternal swimming and floating on the surface of the water. Ultimately, it's a death sentence for the helpless turtle.
In summary, life in 21st century Thailand is tough for turtles and tortoises. If they are released in conditions that are less than ideal, they will not survive. The improper release of turtles, rather than being an act of kindness and compassion consistent with Buddhist beliefs, traditions and practices, becomes a sentence to a very slow death either by exhaustion, drowning, starvation, dehydration, sickness and infection.

Injured Turtles
If you come across an injured turtle with a damaged shell, do not pick up the turtle. Gently slide a flat, firm surface under the turtle to support its body before transporting it to the nearest animal hospital for treatment. Do not place the turtle on tissue or other pliable material that yields under its weight. This could exacerbate the injury.

Once the turtle has been nursed back to good health and you'd like to release it back into the wild, this is the opportunity for you to make good merit.

If you believe that given their long life, turtles are symbolic of longevity, remember that turtles cannot bestow longevity to your life if they themselves do not live a long and good life.

Do pray – not only for your prosperity, but also for the turtles you release as well.
Thank you for making it right.

Contact information:
Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University
Henri Dunant Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330.
Tel/Fax: +66 (0) 2251 8887

The sale and purchase of all protected Thai wildlife species is illegal. And if foreign species have found their way onto the market through illegal wildlife trade, tourists and visitors who participate in the release of these animals are in fact contributing to the illegal import and trade in wildlife.

News Room sincerely thanks Dr. Nantarika Chansue, Associate Professor of Aquatic Animal Medicine at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University, for the enthusiastic support in providing knowledge and content for this special feature.

Dr. Nantarika Chansue, Associate Professor of Aquatic animal medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University, has been working in aquatic animal medicine for more than 15 years. Her accomplishment in creating artificial fibre glass shells for injured turtles has been of global interest.

She also works at the Aquatic Animal Hospital at Chulalongkorn University treating sick animals, both owned and strays, restoring them to good health and helping distressed animals to survive. Dr Nantarika is the vice president of “Rux tao” club for turtle rescue and a volunteer specialist on aquatic animal rescue programmes organised by various radio stations.

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