Set Lives Free Blindly—the Unbearable Heaviness of Biodiversity

An introspection of animal releasement based on the Piranha case study in Liujiang River, China

Setting lives free is a reflection of compassion which can make countless dying animals regain the vitality. In China, many people think the activity of setting animals free equals to saving the lives of animals, so there is a great number of people in China buy various animals from the market and release them into wild. However, there are many industrial chains derived from the increasing scale of the releasement activity in the Chinese public. More importantly, with the variety of “set animals free” activities, there were sorts of exotic animals released into the local forests and river systems. The troubles of the imbalanced ecosystem and the endangered biodiversity started to appear gradually, which not only threaten to the environment, but also cause enormous losses to the lives of people in China.

The piranha in Liujiang River, China—from “pets” to “pest”

On July 7th 2012, when Mr. Liu bathed his dog near the Liujiang River, he got attack by three Piranhas. His left hand was almost biting off a piece of meat by one of the piranhas. After that, Mr. Zhang brought one of the fishes back home, and his friend Mr. Wu also had been bitten through his thumbs by the fish when he was touching it with curiosity. On the second day, the experts found that the fish was Red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) which is native to South America and mainly found in Amazon River. The existence of piranha in Liujiang River comes as a shock, but how are they get into Liujiang River system is the focus of attention. According to the Department of the Fishery of China, the species was first introduced into domestic as the ornamental tropical fish, and not only Liujiang River, other river systems, especially in the southern part of China, had found the species before (Bai, 2012). Due to the serious invasion by the fish, many people, including Li Xinhui, a researcher at the Pearl River Fisheries Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, believe that the piranhas in Liujiang River came from the activity of releasement of the fishes. At the same time, due to the similar environment conditions and the fast breeding characteristics of the fishes, the rapid increase in the number of Piranhas appeared in Liujiang River system. Mr. Li also claimed that the other fish species would be largely killed hence harm to the local ecosystem when the piranha fishes reach a certain amount in the Liujiang River (Remling, 2012).  

Piranha fish bit Mr. Liu’s left hand

Piranha fish bit Mr. Liu’s left hand

 Red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

Red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)


The consequence of “set lives free activity”

Nevertheless, there are more than 120 invasive species in China at present, and about 50% of them are spread in a boarder range and cause hazards to the native ecosystem after the intended introduction, proliferation and releasement. China has become one of the countries which suffering the most from foreign invasive species, and the releasement of animals is one of the ways for the expansion of the exotic species.

Fierce and strong animals and fish can eliminate the other creatures in the local ecosystem, and the animal which cannot adapt the new habitat, would die and cause the problem of water and environmental pollution (Henn, 2015).

The behavior of animal releasement also stimulates the industry of capture animals. In China, there are some small retailers catch the animal from wild and sale in the market. The people are easily tempted to buy the animals and set them free. A gray industrial chains “capture—sales—release” was formed under the certain circumstance. The species like wild sparrows, crested mynas and wood thrush become a unique new category as the “released bird” with the special functions in many markets in China. Also, during the process of releasing animals, it is a common occurrence phenomenon that the people set animal free in the upstream, and the vendors catch the animal in the downstream (Xinhua, 2016).

"Released Birds" in the Chinese market

“Released Birds” in the Chinese market

The traders re-capture the released animals

The traders re-capture the released animals

The industrial chain would harm to the wild animal, and animal releasement is worse especially to the wild animals which have already become endangered because of human activities. For the wild animals which had no trade value, they also suffer from the “value of releasement”. Those animals would have very low survival rate if they were released in the place where the habitat has the huge difference with the origin. Moreover, there are many animals in the markets are fed artificially, which have already lost the survival ability in the wild. For example, cage birds would easily die after the releasement because the lack of ability to fly and foraging. For the fish species, the mortality rate is high as well because they cannot adapt to the change of water temperature and quality (Waples and Stagoll, 1997). In this term, the behavior of “safe lives” becomes “kill lives”, and at the same time would npollute the local environment as well.

The overabundant invasive species threaten the local environment

The overabundant invasive species threaten the local environment

The released snakes in Qingzhou Forest, China

The released snakes in Qingzhou Forest, China

 The fishes died after releasement and caused water pollution

The fishes died after releasement and caused water pollution

The lack of government control

The activity of releasing animal blindly should be criticized, and the vacancy of legislation is the essential of the problem. The current Chinese legislation is mainly formulated from the aspects of listed domestic endangered species, there are few laws related to the invasive species. In the case of Piranha in Liujiang River, there is no any law and regulation which clearly pointed out such the species must be banned in the market, and the managements of the business of ornamental fish are also not clear. Due to the blind spot of the current legislation, and the lack of enforcement of the governments, the piranha fishes swam into Liujiang River and caused the hazards to the local ecosystem.  

The introspection of animal releasement

Animal releasement should be regulated strictly and scientifically. The public of China should know that the blind releasement of lives will not only bring disaster to the animals, but also cause the hazards to the local ecosystem at the same time trouble the life of human beings. Also, the Chinese governments should consummate relevant law by learning from other countries, to control the problem of pest animals and maintain the biodiversity.


Bai, Y. (2012). Number of piranhas in the Liujiang River under investigation. CCTV English. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Oct. 2016].

Henn, C. (2015). What Happens When People Release Exotic Animals Into the Wild. [online] One green Planet. Available at: [Accessed 13 Oct. 2016].

Remling, A. (2012). Piranha Attack In China: Three Red-Bellied Piranha?s Bite Two Men In River, Alien Species To The Area. International Business Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Oct. 2016].

Waples, K. and Stagoll, C. (1997). Ethical Issues in the Release of Animals from Captivity. BioScience, 47(2), pp.115-121.

Xinhua, K. (2016). Release of animals into the wild threatens ecosystem. China Daily. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Oct. 2016].


Jiahui Luo (Livia)







About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Set Lives Free Blindly—the Unbearable Heaviness of Biodiversity

  1. Paul Chapelli says:

    Great article Livia, we get stuck on the issues that plague Australia, I had no idea that there was a Piranha problem in rivers in China let alone the many other issues raised. Great article.

  2. A fascinating issue that you have raised Livia. Phil

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