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Dark Trade in Amulets, Potions Put Hex on India’s Owls

Use of owls in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is one of the prime drivers of the covert trade threatening the survival of the nocturnal bird, wildlife monitors concluded after investigating trafficking, trapping and exploitation of owls in India. Conservationists are especially concerned that the celebration of the Hindu festival Diwali, which begins...

Use of owls in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is one of the prime drivers of the covert trade threatening the survival of the nocturnal bird, wildlife monitors concluded after investigating trafficking, trapping and exploitation of owls in India.

Conservationists are especially concerned that the celebration of the Hindu festival Diwali, which begins tomorrow, may further impact owls as the birds are sometimes sacrificed as part of Diwali rituals.

Owl TRAFFIC report cover.jpg

TRAFFIC India’s report entitled “Imperilled Custodians of the Night(PDF, 7.5 MB) was released in New Delhi this week at an event attended by Shri Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of Environment and Forests.

Ramesh said: “Diwali should be a time for celebration across our nation, not one when our wildlife is plundered to feed ignorant superstition. India’s wildlife already faces many pressures; the additional burden of being killed out of ignorance and fear is not one that has any place in our modern society.

“Owls are as important to our ecosystem as the tigers or any other better known charismatic species. It is important that the threat to owls is brought to light during the festival of Diwali and concrete ground action is undertaken to curb such trade.”

Harry Potter Inspires Owl Pet Trade

Ramesh was also reported saying that Harry Potter books and films might be having a deleterious effect on India’s owls. Watch the video below.

YouTube video by NewsX

Hunting of and trade in all Indian owl species is banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India, TRAFFIC India said in a statement accompanying the release of the “Imperilled Custodians of the Night” report to the media.

TRAFFIC is a wildlife trade monitoring network managed jointly by the conservation organizations WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). TRAFFIC India is a division of WWF-India, working to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature in India.

TRAFFIC’s investigations found 15 owl species in trade: spotted owlet, barn owl, rock-eagle owl, jungle owlet, collared scops-owl, brown fish-owl, dusky eagle-owl, mottled wood-owl, Asian barred owlet, collared owlet, brown wood-owl, Oriental scops-owl, spot-bellied eagle-owl, tawny fish-owl, and the eastern grass-owl.

spotted owlet photo.jpg

Spotted owlet offered at Chowk market near Charminar in Hyderabad.

Photo by Abrar Ahmed/TRAFFIC India 

According to TRAFFIC India:

“While the exact number of owls traded each year countrywide is unknown, it certainly runs into thousands of individuals and there are anecdotal reports of owls becoming rare throughout India due to loss of suitable habitat especially old growth forests.”

“In light of such reports, TRAFFIC is calling for measures including better law enforcement to curb the trade in owls immediately.

“TRAFFIC also calls for raising awareness of the beneficial and vital role of owls in the ecosystem, the birds being of particular benefit to farmers through their predation of rodents and other crop pests.

“The sacrifice of owls on auspicious occasions appears to be a regular practice and TRAFFIC warns of a possible increase in owl trade and sacrifice around Diwali, the Festival of Light, which this year is on 5th November.

“Shaman or black magic practitioners frequently referred to as tantriks in India, prescribe the use of owls and their body parts such as skull, feathers, ear tuffs, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, fat, beak, tears, eggshells, meat and bones for ceremonial pujas and rituals.

“Of the 30 owl species recorded from India, 15 have been recorded by this study in the domestic live bird trade. Owl species most highly sought after by traders are large species, especially those with false ‘ear tufts’ (actually feather extensions on the head), which are thought to bestow greater magical properties on the birds.

“However, trade includes both large (e.g. rock eagle-owl) and small (e.g. spotted owlet) owl species inhabiting areas as varied as urban settings and forest or riverine tracts with the main centres for the illicit trade located in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar,” according to TRAFFIC.

The investigation also found that besides black magic, owls are trapped and traded for use in street performances; killed for taxidermy and for their meat; their parts are used in folk medicines; even their claws and feathers are sometimes used in headgear. Live owls are also used as decoys to catch other bird species, TRAFFIC said.

The investigations into the owl trade were conducted during nationwide studies of the bird trade undertaken between 1992-2000 with additional information gathered between 2001 and 2008. The prime investigator and author of the report is ornithologist Abrar Ahmed.

“Illegal wildlife trade is widespread globally, and is possibly only behind the illegal narcotics and arms trades in terms of value,” TRAFFIC said in its statement. “The most commonly encountered products in illegal wildlife trade in India are: Mongoose hair; snakeskin; rhino horn; tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins, whiskers; elephant tusks; deer antlers; turtle shells; musk pods; bear bile; medicinal plants; timber; and caged birds such as parakeets, mynas and munias.

Posted by David Braun from media materials submitted by TRAFFIC.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn