Published 7 November 2012

India’s Festival of Lights darkens the future for owls

New Delhi, India, 7th November 2012—TRAFFIC is warning of a possible increase in illegal owl trade and sacrifices around Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which this year falls on 13th November. 

Rock Eagle-owls are highly sought after because of their false “ear-tufts”, which are considered to have the greatest magical properties. © TRAFFIC

Owls are sacrificed on auspicious occasions such as Diwali and their body parts used in ceremonial pujas and rituals, when Shaman or black magic practitioners, also referred to as tantriks, prescribe various uses for owls and their body parts, including the skull, feathers, ear-tuffs, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, fat, beak, tears, eggshells, meat and bones. 

“It is unfortunate that although many people consider the owl sacred in Indian culture and a vehicle (vahan) of Goddess Lakshmi, superstitions and false beliefs manipulated over the ages have created a demand for owls and their body parts in black magic ceremonies,” said TRAFFIC’s Abrar Ahmed, an expert on the Indian bird trade. 

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

Owl species most highly sought after by traders are large species, particularly those with false “ear-tufts” (feather extensions on the head), since these are considered to have the greatest magical properties. 

In 2010, TRAFFIC released Imperilled Custodians of the Night, a report highlighting the various ways owls or their body parts are used in black magic, street performances, taxidermy, consumption, occult medicines, for capturing other birds and even their eggs used for gambling. 

The report highlighted that of the 30 owl species recorded from India, 15 had been recorded in the domestic live bird trade with the Spotted Owlet, Barn Owl and Rock Eagle-Owl the most commonly recorded species. 

“Owls play an extremely useful ecological role by controlling the population of rats and large insects. In an agrarian country, where 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture, the role of owls should be recognized and strict protection should be given to these magnificent nocturnal birds,” said Ahmed. 

MKS Pasha, Associate Director and Interim Head of TRAFFIC in India added, “Enforcement officers from forest departments, railways, Customs and police need to monitor and control the illegal bird trade through making regular raids and taking legal action against the perpetrators.” 

He also noted the need for establishment of rescue and rehabilitation centers for seized owls and also adherence to proper release protocols.