Hooted Out: Birds of the night become the sorcerer's subject
by Shubhobroto Ghosh
The Owl, as a nocturnal bird of prey, enjoys a rather chequered reputation in India, as it does in many other countries around the world.
The Barn Owl is respected as the acolyte of the Goddess Chamunda in Karnataka. In Bengal, it is revered as the carrier of Lakshmi, the deity of wealth. However, at the same time, it is feared as the symbol of ill omen in several literary texts. And it is this split opinion on their nature that appears to be their undoing in India. Of the thirty species of owls reported from India, fifteen have been reported in the illegal trade, as unveiled by a recent study.
The widespread use of these enchanting birds in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is one of the prime forces responsible for the decline of this group of birds, according to a study conducted by Abrar Ahmed for TRAFFIC India on trapping, trade and use of owls in the country. TRAFFIC is the world’s largest network that monitors global wildlife trade.
The report by ornithologist Abrar Ahmed entitled Imperilled Custodians of the Night was launched by the former Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India Mr Jairam Ramesh in early November 2010. It succinctly highlights the threats faced by these ecologically sensitive species due to human induced activities.
Owls in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. The recently rediscovered Forest Owlet is listed under Schedule I of the Act while all other owl species are covered under Schedule IV. Thus, any trapping, killing and trade in these species are strictly prohibited and invites strict penalties. The species are also listed under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement. The Forest Owlet is in Appendix I and all other Indian species in Appendix II of the Convention that restricts the commerce in these beautiful birds. Unfortunately, these statutes have not deterred people from utilizing owls covertly.
The timing of the TRAFFIC report release in November 2010 was apposite since it appeared just before the festival of Diwali when there is an increase in owl trade and sacrifice. It is a conundrum that on this auspicious festival of light that is meant to deliver happiness and joy, there is a clandestine slaughter of these nocturnal birds. Black magicians, shamans and faith healers (also known as tantriks) kill these birds to prescribe the use of their body parts such as skulls, feathers, ear tufts, egg shells, claws, hearts, kidneys, livers, blood, meat and bones for ritualistic ministrations. Such practices are also an integral part of unauthorized medical literature available regionally in Northern and Eastern India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal.
The species encountered in trade were 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 and Eastern Grass Owl. Among the most widely traded species were Spotted Owlet, Barn Owl and Rock Eagle Owl, the latter especially coveted for their false feather ‘ear tufts’. The prices quoted for prized owl specimens were extremely high and frequently associated with the weight of the individuals involved. There is also an element of fraudulence simulation in this business, whereby smaller owls are dressed with feathers to resemble the false ‘ear-tufts’ of several larger owl species.
The principal owl trading centres in the country identified by Ahmed (2012) were Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar. Several indigenous tribes and communities are involved in the trade and former bear charmers, also known as kalandars, have resorted to using owls after the crackdown on performing bears that were used for roadside dancing to entertain tourists. Live owls are also used to fight Peregrine Falcons as entertainment in certain places.
While the exact number of owls traded each year countrywide is unknown, it might run into thousands of individuals. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that owls are becoming rare throughout their range due to persecution and loss of suitable habitat, especially old-growth forests. In the wake of this evidence, TRAFFIC India has called for urgent measures to halt the trade in owls immediately. The organization has also appealed to raise awareness and sensitivity to the beneficial and vital role of these birds to farmers in the way of pest control through their predation on mice and other rodents.
TRAFFIC India’s research spanned an initial period of 1992-2000. Information was also collected during 2001-2008. The purpose of the study was primarily to highlight the ongoing illegal trade in owls, identify the species most widely involved in the black market for endangered species, assess the trade volume, document details like major trapping and trading sites and to ascertain the communities that indulge in this trade.
In March 2013in a raid in Mumbai twenty five live Barn Owls were rescued. If anything, the number of birds involved shows that illegal trade in these birds is still rife and calls for continual attention. In the report, Ahmed (2012) recommended strict monitoring and control of the trade in owls combined with training for enforcement officials who could fight this underground commerce. It was also suggested that rescue and rehabilitation centres manned by specialized, dedicated and knowledgeable personnel would aid the survival of birds seized during raids conducted on traders.
Since it is somewhat difficult to identify one single overriding approach to ameliorate the problem of owl trade, the measures combined with a massive public awareness endeavour would come in extremely useful to assist the survival of these birds.
Owls, like many other species of animals enrich our lives by playing a valuable role in ecological processes that sustain our own lives. In the celebrated poem written by the British humorist Edward Lear 'The Owl and The Pussycat', the owl danced by the light of the moon. If appropriate action is not taken immediately to protect this nocturnal winged predator, the moonlight dance may turn out to be a rueful swansong.
The information in the article is based on the study undertaken by TRAFFIC in India on owl trade. The findings of the study were released in a report titled: “Imperilled Custodians of the Night” in November 2010. You can download the report here.