Black magic behind illegal owl trade in India

Posted on
02 November 2010
TRAFFIC India exposes the surreptitious owl trade in India

New Delhi:
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 utilization of owls in India.

TRAFFIC India’s report entitled “Imperilled Custodians of the Night” was launched today by Shri Jairam Ramesh, Hon. Minister of Environment and Forests at his office in New Delhi. The prime investigator and author of the report is ornithologist Mr Abrar Ahmed.

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. 

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) & 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. 

Shri Jairam Ramesh, Hon. Minister of Environment and Forest said at the launch, “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 the species is brought to light on the festival of Diwali and concrete on ground action is undertaken to curb its trade” he further added.

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.

For further information, please contact
Dilpreet B. Chhabra on 011-41504786/43516290.

  1. TRAFFIC’s investigations recorded 15 owl species in trade including 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. 
  2. The investigations into the owl trade were conducted during nationwide studies of the bird trade undertaken between1992-2000 with additional information gathered between 2001 and2008. The prime investigator and author of the report is ornithologist Mr Abrar Ahmed.
  3. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network is a joint programme of WWF, the global conservation organization and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. TRAFFIC currently works on wildlife trade issues in over 25 countries and territories, with ongoing research and activities in several others. In India, TRAFFIC functions as a division of WWF-India. TRAFFIC India works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature in India. For more information please visit or
  4. Illegal wildlife trade is widespread globally, and is possibly only behind the illegal narcotics and arms trades in terms of value. 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


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