Changing Planet

Where an Owl Egg Is Worth More Than Ivory or Rhino Horn

Nine years ago I was regularly in the field in central Kenya studying Mackinder’s eagle owls (Bubo capensis mackinderi) and promoting their conservation among the local community.

The reason we had to promote the conservation of owls is because they are widely despised, not just in Kenya, but throughout Africa and many other parts of the world.

In Africa a widely held belief is that if an owl lands on the roof of your house someone inside will die. Their hooting calls during the dark of night instill fear and a sense of dread. It’s no wonder then that owls are regularly stoned or killed.

Mackinder’s eagle owl, a species studied by the author, has been hugely affected by the owl egg trade in Kenya. (Photo by S. Thomsett)

In the western world owls are are more often seen as beloved, wise creatures and their symbolism inspires many seemingly ordinary people into a collector’s frenzy. For those who love owls, a home can soon become a warehouse for all things “owl”: owl cups, owl plates, owl toilet seat covers. Even the food on their plates may be owl-shaped. Not to be forgotten are the falconers who specialize in keeping owls. Once word got out about our owl project I received no end of emails asking me how I could help someone abroad acquire a Mackinder’s eagle owl under the guise that they would be breeding them to boost their populations in the wild. I won’t go into why I felt their noble cause was actually more of a self-indulgent personal agenda.

Unsolicited emails and phone calls to acquire owls also came from within Kenya, but for very different reasons. Kenyans were not looking to acquire owls so much as their eggs. Those in possession of owl eggs asked about where they could sell them.

Due to the superstitions around owls, they are widely used in Africa for witchcraft. The exact beliefs surrounding the use of owl eggs are not well known, but calls I received generally came from well-educated individuals seeking to cure a relative of cancer or HIV-Aids. Many indicated that their Tanzanian witch doctor had prescribed the need for fresh owl eggs. Tanzanian belief in witchcraft is strong and their witch doctors are held in high esteem here in neighboring Kenya.

Even the collection of the eggs from a nest is a superstitious ritual that involves first sprinkling the eggs with maize flour then subsequently collecting the eggs without touching them directly, but by using black-and-white cloths.

Owls eggs sprinkled with maize flour prior to collection. Photo Anonymous
Owls eggs are superstitiously sprinkled with maize flour prior to collection. (Photo Anonymous)

Over the intervening years what started as a few inquiries per year about owl eggs quickly became a landslide. Why? Money, of course.

Taking an average of prices cited in a 2011 news report and solicitations in online forums from 2014, an owl egg in Kenya can be expected to fetch $3,796. This works out to about $89/gram. The cost of ivory in China in November 2015 was $1.10/gram and that of rhino horn in Vietnam in September of 2016 was $35/gram. With full acknowledgement of the difficulty of knowing actual black-market prices, and the fluctuations in those prices year to year, the overall picture is still clear: Owl eggs can cost more than twice the price of rhino horn and about eighty times the price of ivory.

Someone recently asked me, “but who are these people in Africa that have the kind of money to buy a high-priced owl egg?” I assured him there are plenty of people with that kind of money. Economic growth has surged in many African countries. According to a recent report by New World Wealth, Africa is now home to more than 160,000 people with personal fortunes worth in excess of $1m, which represents a twofold increase in the number of wealthy individuals since the turn of the century. Add to that the fortunes of the political elite who are pushing the demand (and in turn the price) of owl eggs through the roof. Owl eggs are now consumed to boost a politician’s chance of winning the next election.

Sadly, I can no longer study owls in the wild because by searching for owls you become an unsuspecting cog in the informal wheel of the owl egg trade. Your motives for looking for owls will be questioned, your every moves followed, and you endanger the very owls you seek to conserve.

No matter where you go in Kenya (and I mean absolutely everywhere) there are people scouring the landscape for owl eggs. Some sell to middlemen from across the border. Others have just heard of the lucrative trade and are seeking information on where to sell the eggs.

Because the trade in owl eggs is illegal, it is completely underground, which makes finding out about it very difficult. Due to the huge amounts of money that are involved, snooping around is risky business.

Pearl-spotted Owlet, another species affected by the illegal trade in owl eggs. Photo D. Ogada
The pearl-spotted owlet is another species affected by the illegal trade in owl eggs. (Photo by D. Ogada)

Stealing owl eggs from a nest is probably one of the easiest forms of wildlife crime. No shots are fired, and no carcasses are left behind. Unlike elephant tusks, you can hide eggs in your pocket. If you are caught with eggs, very few in authority would know the difference between owl eggs and chicken eggs, so you can claim they are the latter and just walk away. And because owls are widely despised, there’s little public sympathy for their plight.

There is no doubt that Kenya’s owl populations are collapsing. Every owl species is targeted and since collectors even work inside national parks, nowhere is safe for an owl to nest. The fact that one owl egg brings returns to the local collector that are more than four times the average monthly income guarantees that the number of offspring actually hatching is exceedingly small.

The population I studied from 2004-7 has not produced a single chick in over two years. I also believe that locals are capturing owls in an unsuccessful bid to try to breed them. This is only resulting in more heartbreak as they have no idea how to care for owls and they end up starved to death.

Unlike the trade in ivory and rhino horn, owl eggs are being harvested mainly for local markets. Some sources have mentioned a market in the Middle East, particularly Dubai, but the existence of a trade in owl eggs to this region has yet to be substantiated.

What we do know is that we need to stop this illicit trade before it wipes out East Africa’s owls.

While the focus of the illegal African wildlife trade is primarily on species that are trafficked to the Far East, we also need to raise awareness of the massive impact of the wildlife trade on species trafficked within Africa, species whose eggs or body parts are worth more than ivory and rhino horn combined, species of which owls are just one of many.

With prices as high as these the stakes are high and these species don’t stand a chance without urgent intervention.

Darcy Ogada thanks an anonymous source for information that contributed to this story.

Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.
  • Lentaaya Robert

    We can only stop this illegal market by those who are in national parks to be serious in conservation and to report the matter when they see, people also should know the difference from the owl’s eggs and that of a hen.

  • Sidney Shema

    This is just ridiculous! Just when I thought we had enough conservation problems to deal with in this country

  • Sidney Shema

    This is just ridiculous! Just when I thought we had enough conservation problems to deal with in this country…

  • Joseph Kodonyo


  • Kariuki

    Very tricky one, since even trying to talk about this problem may even attract more interest in this illegal trade. For example I am not sure about sharing the article on my fb page.

  • DF Joubert

    I strongly believe that “traditional” practices from all over Africa are being spread all over Africa. Because a “traditional healer” from Nigeria, for example, prescribed vulture parts for someone in Namibia, then it is erroneously referred to as traditional in Namibia. I am horrified to hear of this practice in East Africa. Just a tad of a correction. Afrikaans speaking people (the White Tribe of Africa?) also refer to the Barn Owl as a doodvoel (death bird) and this might have come from Europe?

  • Nilanjana Chatterjee

    At this rate owls will follow elephants and rhinos into extinction unless something is done about it very fast

  • Rachel Ling

    Hey there , owl is my favorite animal . I like the way it stand on the tree and eyes . I never find its jinx .

  • Laura

    Bring them all to America. We’ll cherish them. They don’t deserve them. I know this is a stupid comment,, but come on, cure HIV? That is so ignorant.

  • Christopher ashwin

    Hi my name is chris and i am seriously concernd about the plight of the mackinders.i have a collection of captive bred owls to which i have in a breeding progect four pairs of mackinders three birds from a zoo whos father is presumed to have been wild cought from tazinear.ime a private keeper and have had this progect in place for nearly ten years now and have insigated or put together with my stock five more captive bred pairs of looks highly likely that if this sittuation persists we are only going to have captive bred stock left.i would like to aquire fresh bloodline eg wild cought stock what would be the chances or possabilitys.i sit on the council of the i.o.s council and are known for my passion on this species.kindest regards chris ashwin.

  • bryn

    it happened that an owl has been laying eggs for about 4 years now on my sealing board.
    I guess someone may be interested to look at them or study you can contact me..

  • Charles Ngetich

    Since I came to know of Owl I do believes it as a bird of bird omen,my parents told us that whenever we see or hear this bird we should chase it immediately by throwing a burned firewood. Since then I take it as a great enemy. These birds are many on where I works, it flies and lands near my house specifically to look for insect near my security light.

  • Charles Ngetich

    Since I got to know Owl, I believes it as a bird of bad omen. My parents used to tell us that it should be chased away by throwing a burning firewood whenever it appears near our home. In my place of work there are many Owls that are only seen or heard at night. At any one time you sees or hears only one. It is attracted near my living house at night by a security light thus preys for insects around the light.

  • ben

    i have an owl egg where do i get a buyer

  • manu

    I need to join you in your research.,,this owl history has always made me to have interest on studying about this horrible bird alot

  • Thopaco Joseph

    I Have Got Two Owl Eggs And Just Scared Of Them


    Ever since we were young, we were made to believe that an owl is a bad omen bird which should be chased with fire and rotten egg, so we used to store rotten egg to help us keep away the owl whenever they came near our home. After along time i have just realized all these are malicious propaganda aimed at destroying this innocent bird. I would like to start keeping them and help in their protection

  • Maurice

    We Are Being Unfair To God’s Creatures Surely,lets Style Up

  • Stephen Gachagua

    Here I thought the worst menace right now in matters of conservation in Africa is the illegal poaching and trade of rhino/elephant horns.
    Well, I must say the future of our wildlife depends on those that showed up

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