Shrouded in mystery, owls are incredibly mesmerising creatures of the night. They play a vital role in the ecosystem as they feed on small mammals, birds, frogs, lizards and insects, thus keeping a check on their population. Sadly, they have often been associated with various myths and superstitions that evoke fear across cultures.

Owl habitat
Owls live in various habitats, ranging from deserts to forests, including human habitations in most parts of the world. However, despite their ubiquity, they are not easily sighted, primarily due to their nocturnal activities.

Legally protected
Worldwide there are over 250 species of owls, and India is home to around 36.

All Indian species of owls are protected under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, making their trapping, hunting, trade or any other form of use a punishable offence. Their international trade is also prohibited.

Enticing facts

- A group of owls is called a parliament
Owls can rotate their heads more than 270 degrees
An owl has 3 eyelids – one for blinking, one for sleeping and one for keeping eyes clean and healthy
Owls are mostly nocturnal and adapted for hunting at dusk or in the dark. 

© Abrar Ahmed

Crimes against owls
Despite the legal restrictions, a large number of these birds are sacrificed in India for mystic rituals and practices linked with superstition, totems, and taboos across the country that usually peaks around the festival of Diwali. Especially in smaller towns and villages, owl parts such as the skull, feathers, ear tuffs, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, fat, beak, tears, eggshells, meat, and bones are prescribed for ceremonial pujas and rituals.

Of the owl species found in India, 16 are more commonly reported in the illegal wildlife trade. These include Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides, Barn Owl Tyto alba, Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis, Brown Hawk Owl Ninox scutulata, Brown Wood-owl Strix leptogrammica, Collared Owlet Glaucidium brodiei, Collared Scops-owl Otus bakkamoena, Dusky Eagle Owl Bubo coromandus, Eastern Grass-owl Tyto longimembris, Jungle Owlet Glaucidium radiatum, Mottled Wood-owl Strix ocellata, Oriental Scops-owl Otus sunia, Rock Eagle-owl Bubo bengalensis, Spot-bellied Eagle-owl Bubo nipalensis, Spotted Owlet Athene brama, and Tawny Fish-owl Ketupa flavipes.

© Saket Badola/TRAFFIC India

Curbing owl poaching and illicit trade

TRAFFIC and WWF India's investigative report into the illicit owl trade in India- Imperilled custodians of the night- released in 2010 was an eye-opener and highlighted the extensive use of owls in occult practices.

Also produced during the years are many educational materials on owls to help illuminate the threats to the species and help bridge wildlife law enforcement gaps.

This year, months ahead of the festival of Diwali, on 4 August 2021 commemorated as the International Owl Awareness Day, TRAFFIC and WWF-India organised a webinar on owls with support from many eminent bird experts. During the webinar, a recently developed identification poster including illustrations of 16 owls species commonly found in illegal wildlife trade in India- Imperilled by illegal wildlife trade: Owls of India’, was also released.

Owls need your support!
Owls are victims of superstitious beliefs and rituals in India, often promoted amongst the unsuspecting public by local mystic practitioners. As we celebrate the festival of lights, we must spare a thought about the plight of these creatures who pay the cost of our superstition with their lives. Together we can take actions to help conserve owls and prevent them from being trapped and sacrificed.

Here are some ways to help.
- Do not trap or engage in the trade of owls. Remember, buying, selling, or possessing an owl is a punishable offence in India.
- Preserve and conserve trees in your surroundings as they act as habitats for owls.
- Educate your friends and families about the need to conserve owls and other wildlife.
- Report any wildlife crime you come across in your neighbourhood, any online platform, or social media to enforcement authorities or conservation organisations like WWF and TRAFFIC.

Let us celebrate the festival of lights by doing our bit to conserve the ecosystem and protect wildlife.

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