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Black magic behind India’s illegal owl trade

04/11/2010 10:01:42

TRAFFIC exposes a trade driven by superstition 

November 2010: Use of owls in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is one of the prime drivers of the covert owl trade, finds a TRAFFIC India investigation into the illegal trade, trapping and use of owls in India.

CAPTURED: Trained owls are used in street
performances: they carry amulets, which are
bought by bystanders as lucky charms
Picture: Abrar Ahmed / TRAFFIC

TRAFFIC India's report, ‘Imperilled Custodians of the Night', was launched by Shri Jairam Ramesh, India's minister of environment and forests.

Hunting of and trade in all Indian owl species is banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of 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. TRAFFIC is calling for measures to curb the trade in owls immediately.

Concerns that Diwali will see increase in owl sacrifices

TRAFFIC also wants to raise 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 November 5.

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.

Wildlife is being plundered to feed ignorant superstition

Shri Jairam 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 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.'

The TRAFFIC investigation also finds 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.

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