New Delhi: This festive season, while there is a huge demand for decorative items, electronic gadgets, and sweets to celebrate the occasion, wildlife experts have raised an alarm over poaching of protected species of birds in the name of ‘religious belief’. Occult practices drive illegal trapping and trade of owls during Diwali. Birds are poached for their bones, talons, skulls, feathers, meat and blood, which are then used in talismans, black magic, and traditional medicine.
While the exact number of owls traded domestically is unknown, estimates place the figure in thousands throughout the country. A wildlife trade monitoring network – TRAFFIC – has issued an advisory to enforcement agencies calling for increased efforts to help curb the trafficking and sacrifice of owls casting a shadow over the future of the species in India.
Other experts claim that to cater to superstitious beliefs, poachers set up camps in agricultural fields, forest and other habitats in order to trap these vivid birds almost a month before the festival. This mainly includes Indian Rollers, Owls and Peacocks. The birds are caged, their legs tied, their wings trimmed and even glued, so that they cannot fly.
Since it has become almost impossible to spot the birds in urban areas of Delhi, professional bird catchers have already launched operations to catch them in nearby forest and agriculture areas. These birds are cruelly captured, abused and later even slaughtered for religious reasons.
According to TRAFFIC’s report, owls are used and traded for a wide variety of purposes including for black magic, street performances, taxidermy, private aviaries/zoos, food and folk medicines. They are also used for capturing other birds, their claws and feathers are used to make headgears, and eggs for gambling.
Illegal trapping and trade peaks around the Diwali festival month, especially in Northern India. Occult practitioners drive consumer demand by touting the use of owl parts for purposes ranging from curing various illnesses to fighting the effects of evil spirits. Birds are poached for their bones, talons, skulls, feathers, meat and blood, which are then used in talismans, black magic, and traditional medicine. Owls, especially with “ears” (or tufts) are thought to possess greatest magical powers, and Diwali is claimed to be the most auspicious time for making owl sacrifices.
The sacrifice of owls on auspicious occasions appears to be a regular practice and experts warn of a possible increase in owl trade and sacrifice around Diwali, the Festival of Light. There is a high demand for owls as Goddess Laxmi, rides on owl, who is worshipped on this day.
“Tantriks 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 ceremonial pujas and rituals,” said an expert.
Dr Saket Badola, IFS, Head of TRAFFIC India said, “TRAFFIC’s advisory is a strong reminder of rampant trade and sacrifice of owls in India. We urge enforcement agencies to strengthen wildlife law enforcement efforts around owl habitats, forest areas, and bird trade markets”.
“As the practice of owl sacrificing begins with the start of the Dussehra festival, moving onto Diwali, poachers involved within the bird trade are most active during this season. This is one of the most important times for enforcement agencies to remain alert and increase their vigilance,” Dr Badola further added.
Owls in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India that prohibits hunting, trade or any other form of utitlisation of the species or their body parts. Their international trade is further restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Owls play a vital role in local ecosystems. They also benefit farmers by preying on small rodents and other crop pests, making their ongoing protection of high ecological, economic, and social importance.
While festivals may be a time for fun, no celebration justifies the torture and abuse of animals. It is a popular belief that the Indian Roller (Neelkanth) is sacred to Vishnu and hence sighting the bird during the Dussehra festival is considered auspicious. Activists claim poachers bring the birds to Delhi to either sell or commercially exploit by organising ‘darshans’ and collecting money.
“The situation is alarming as there is no religious text but the illegal activity is thriving only on superstition and instructions of tantriks. We have found that hundreds of Neelkanth birds are held and their feet are chopped so that they cannot fly. These birds are then brought to Delhi and other urban areas where a hefty amount of over Rs 5,000 is charged just for the glimpse of the bird,” said Abhinav Srihan, founder of an animal welfare NGO called Fauna Police.