Illegal wildlife trade is a growing cause for concern globally, with an estimated industry size of USD 7 to 23 billion annually. Live animal trade in small to medium sized animals – largely birds and reptiles – formed a substantial part of this trade.
In India too, the trade in live birds for the pet industry and otherwise is rampant. A recent report suggests that more than 450 of the approximately 1,300 species of birds in India have been reported in trade. However, what is extremely alarming is the trade in live owls that is growing because of the strange and illegal custom of owl sacrifices in the country. In fact, this is a cause of concern because the sacrifices peak around the festival of Diwali. Because of superstition, a festival that is a symbol of joy and light and victory of good over evil, brings death to many animals.
A 2010 report done by TRAFFIC India suggests that 13 owl species, out of the 32 that call India home, are traded, some extensively. Killings happen because of a misguided, but growing belief that sacrificing an owl within some specified premises (like home or office) will bring wealth. Some worshipers believe owls to be a vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth; sacrificing an owl, they claim, will render the goddess unable to move out of the set boundaries of the sacrifice.
This line of reasoning is both flawed and baseless. A sense of mystery has always surrounded owls considering they are a nocturnal species who can fly without making a sound, can turn their head 270 degrees and are efficient hunters. Moreover, our television, movies and popular media channels have played a large role in associating owls with magic by using props like hooting of owls or showing them on-screen to depict surreal, mysterious or spooky scenarios. Unfortunately, this association of owls and magic has led to myths and misbeliefs about the species, which has in turn led to them being hunted. In fact, owl and owl parts are often used in black magic and quack medicine. In TRAFFIC India’s report, Frost (2004) notes “In India, eating owls’ eyeballs was thought to help you see in the dark.” Similarly, in parts of India, consumption of owl parts is believed to be a cure for certain conditions, but has never been scientifically proven.
All species of owl’s endemic to India are afforded protection under various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 that renders hunting, trade and keeping as pet at home and sacrifice illegal and punishable by law. However, the demand in owls has led the species to being trapped by local tribes across the country and sold at lucrative prices to prospective buyers. Owls are apex predators in any ecosystem that hosts them and play a very important role in the complex food web that is critical in maintaining a balance in the predator-prey equation. Owls are voracious feeders who will prey largely on rodents but are also opportunistic and will hunt anything they can overpower, such as smaller birds, reptiles and mammals.
Most owls can be transported with a fair amount of ease as they do not make a lot of noise, are small, get habituated easily and can go without food for a few days at a time. This has helped fuel their trade. The spotted owlet is the most commonly traded species, while other species, such as rock eagle owl, are in high demand owing to their size and majestic appearance. Recent seizures done by CID Forest Cell Karnataka, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and assisted by members of Humane Society International/India have revealed that this apparent demand and imaginary high pay-off associated for owls is increasingly drawing youth to this trade. The most recent seizure done in Bangalore revealed that the oldest of the four accused was 19 years of age.
The ease of communication through new technology has lowered the lead-time between demand and supply that has not helped the curb of trade. Add to this the unchecked e-commerce websites that list endemic protected birds under the guise of exotic species that are really hard to monitor and act on. A comprehensive study of trade routes for owls across the country, the tribes involved in it and hotspots for capture and trade in revealed that states of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal, Haryana have seen a large number of seizures. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are also witnessing a rise in cases of owl trade.
The atrocities committed against such majestic animals due to myths and superstitions have marred the celebration of Diwali. As a compassionate consumer, it is imperative to look out for the consumptive use of wildlife. Avoid patronizing any establishment that is involved in such use. Always assume that wildlife products for sale are illegal and inhumane. Laws protecting animals from trade are often confusing, weak and poorly enforced. If you see information in newspapers or magazines that support wildlife use, send a letter to the editor. If you witness abuse or illegal activity involving wild animals, report it to law enforcement. And help educate others on how to avoid supporting the wildlife trade, too and while doing that, pledge to not buy wild.
The author of this article is Mr. NG Jayasimha, Managing Director of Humane Society International/India, an animal welfare organisation which, through fieldwork, policy formation, humane education, direct care and services, and capacity building of in-country partners, HSI/India has helped advance the cause of animal welfare in India.