Owls have been fascinating subjects for humans all through history - while it's revered in certain cultures, there are others that shun these nocturnal beings. With big eyes and a haunting call, these raptors evoke a sense of fear and surprise.
In fact, owls have maintained a vivid presence in folklores and legends. However, their interesting persona also makes them victims of superstitious rituals, in turn making them prone to poaching and illicit trafficking.
'Imperilled Custodians of the Night', a 2010 report by TRAFFIC India, a wildlife trade monitoring network under World Wildlife Fund India, revealed that owl trade is carried for a multitude of reasons including black magic, street performances, folk medicines, and more.
While such clandestine activities operate throughout the year, it is during festivals like Durga Puja and Diwali when there's a spike in these incidents, as occult practitioners misguide ignorant and superstitious people, and urge them to sacrifice these birds of prey.
Harmed by superstition
In Indian mythology, owls have a sacred presence as it is considered the vahan (vehicle) of Lakshmi, a goddess - associated with bringing material wealth and good fortune - worshipped on Diwali. Thus, people tend to trap owls to catch their sight (darshan), which is further believed to bring prosperity to the household.
"This trade [poaching of owls] continues round the year. Owls are killed for their beaks, their blood, and other parts, but such activities peaks during Diwali. Tantriks and traditional healers charge ordinary people a lot of money and tell them that they will prosper by sacrificing an owl. These owls get killed in the bargain," says Bikram Grewal, a Delhi-based ornithologist and author.
Black magic practitioners and exorcists also sacrifice the bird for sorcery rituals at Kaalratri hour (after midnight) to apparently gain strength over the supernatural forces. "The Indian Eagle Owl, a protected species, is one of the most sought-after birds compared to other kinds. It is huge in size but it is difficult to sell because of legal restrictions. In the bargain, the spotted owl, which is the most common species and is smaller than the size of a pigeon, gets killed," explains Grewal.
Prone to poaching
Out of the 250 owl species that exist in the world, 36 are found in India. All these owl species in India are protected under The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. This makes poaching, trade, or any other form of exploitation a punishable offence as per law.
Despite the legal restrictions, hundreds of owls are poached as part of a number of mystic rituals and practises fuelled by myths, superstitions, and taboos across the country. The trade is often higher in smaller towns and cities where a few rituals stipulate that various body parts of owls including beaks, bones, claws, among others, be used.
"This trade is now going underground. It is not limited to one community or a certain strata, instead it is the same from a tribal area to a rich society. To curb this, more public awareness is required. The illegality of using owls and their body parts needs to be made clear to the common folk by spreading information in vernacular languages," says Abrar Ahmed, lead researcher and ornithologist.
Talking about the gravity of the situation, Sohail Madan, Center Manager, CEC-Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (ABWLS) Delhi, BNHS, concludes, "All types of owls are traded, be it for black magic, good luck, or religious ceremonies. This has been a long standing issue. Owls are very territorial and stay at the same spot for years. In order to save them from being killed, city dwellers must not disclose their whereabouts."