Owls in danger due to superstitions, illegal trade

Owls are in serious danger in India due to rampant illegal trade, according to a report.

Mumbai: Owls are in serious danger in India due to rampant illegal trade in living specimens and their body parts that are falsely considered to have medicinal and
occult healing properties, according to a recent wildlife report.

The report published by TRAFFIC INDIA-the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-- has revealed that black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is slowly driving various owl species towards extinction.

Titled as `Imperilled Custodians of the Night`, the report, investigated and authored by ornithologist Abrar Ahmed had Samir Sinha of WWF as the project supervisor and Dr Asad Rahmani, Director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as the project advisor.

Nationwide studies and investigations were conducted from 1998-2008 to compile this report highlighting trade of owls.

The BNHS has strongly urged effective implementation by the government of the existing ban on hunting and trade of owls and its body parts.

Simultaneously, a nationwide awareness drive is necessary to highlight the great usefulness of owls in controlling rat population and to educate people about the false nature of superstitious beliefs, Rahmani said.

Although hunting and trade in all Indian owl species is banned under Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, thousands of owls are trapped and traded every year, the report said.

Destruction of habitat, especially forests with old matured trees, is another major reason for their decline.

The report said that the owl trade is conducted in both urban and forested areas and the main centres are located in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar. Black magic practitioners and sorcerers 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 certain ceremonial rituals, the report said.

It also highlights the various ways of utilisation of owls and owl body parts for black magic, street performances, taxidermy, for eating, for use in occult medicines, for
capturing other birds, for decorative purposes and for gambling in owl eggs.

According to the report, of the 30 owl species found in India, 15 have been found to be used in the domestic live bird trade. Large species, particularly those with false
"ear-tufts" (feather extensions on the head), are the most highly sought after by traders since these are considered to have greater magical properties.

The trade also includes small owl species. These 15 species are: 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.

Owls are caught in the wild using equipment such as bamboo poles, latex, hanging nets, noose traps, snares and fall traps. The young ones are captured by hand, it added.