For Hindus, this time of the year is the most awaited and most auspicious period in the annual calendar. While many get ready to be part of the celebrations with two major festivals of Dussehra and Diwali coming one after the other, there are also a few who wish to seek the blessings of the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi through whatever ways and means. Even today, therefore the goddesses’ traditional mount, the owl, is sacrificed by blinded individuals to ensure prosperity in their lives but forever doom the life of a harmless bird.
In the period between Dussehra and Diwali therefore business is booming for people like Babu Baheliya. It is this specific time of the year when many come to this bird catcher seeking priced owls. But while the bird catcher rejoices, it is another matter for the captured owls that are sacrificed to appease the Goddess Lakshmi and to ward off bad luck on the night of Diwali.
People like Babu Baheliya sitting in his dingy alleyways of Meerut can easily pocket up to Rs. 50,000 selling 2 or 3 owls to individuals blinded with superstition. The trade flourishes during the festival of Sharad Poornima (the full moon night right after Dussehra) and continues to peak near Diwali. It is these two days when Lakshmi is worshipped most arduously in many homes and therefore the rise in demand for the sacrificial owls.
“Owls are associated with various myths, folklore and superstitions concerning black magic and witchcraft, prophecy, birth, death, and many other natural and unnatural phenomena. Given the mysteries usually associated with them, it may also come as a surprise that owls are heavily targeted for illegal trade,” says Ravi Singh, secretary general at WWF-India.
Owls were included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. But according to wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, out of 32 species of owls in the country, 15 have been found in the illegal domestic bird trade.
Exotic Pet & Sacrificial – The popularity of Harry Potter has prompted many to buy owls as pets but most of the birds sold in the illegal pet market are sacrificed during traditional rituals. Mostly, people behind the sacrifice are so called shamans or tantriks, the black magic experts.
“Such tantriks claim to be able to cure a variety of maladies and ill-fortune, ranging from desire for a male child, prolonged sickness, infertility, the need for vashikaran (being able to control someone). The demands are either from tribal areas or from towns and cities where demand is created by practising tantriks. Owls are sold at a premium,” says Abrar Ahmed, an expert on the bird trade.
Body Parts – Owl parts are in great demand too in many tribal areas where bones, beaks and talons of owls are sold. The busy by-lanes around the Ajmer Dargah Sharif, the Delhi Jama Masjid, and Chowringhee and Kalighat in Kolkata abound in vendors doing a brisk business selling amulets and other charms made from owl parts.
According to Paul D. Frost, author of Owls Mythology and Folklore, “In India, ‘food’ made from owls was believed to have many medicinal properties, curing seizures in children and rheumatism. Eating owl eyes was believed to enable a person to see in the dark, while owl meat was believed to be an aphrodisiac.”
Bird Traps – Another use of the captured owls is as birds such as minlas, sibias, thrushes, magpies and yuhinas, all birds that fetch a good price in the pet market. Collared owlets are most frequently used for trapping silver-eared mesias and red-billed leiothrixes, while jungle owlets are used to trap thrushes and magpies.
But the owl is in no way treated with care when it helps the catcher lure other birds. According to the investigative report by Livemint, they sew its eyelids shut, and then train the bird to sit on a bamboo pole to which it is tethered by a cotton thread. The trappers then conceal themselves and mimic the distress calls of various birds, all the while shaking the pole to make the captive owl flutter. Small birds begin mobbing the owl and are caught using glue on a bamboo stick.
The demand for owls is not limited to a state or two in the country. In fact, be it Delhi or Mumbai, Kolkata or Bangalore all over the country markets are thriving with owl business.
The highest demand is for the horned owls. Catchers often disguise spotted owls to look like them or the rock eagle owl. They are dyed with tea and lamp-black mixed with mustard oil and feathers are stuck with latex to the head, besides red colouring agents being injected into the eyes of the bird. Shikras and sparrowhawks are often beheaded and their body parts passed off as those of owls.
Ahmed says that the way owls and other animals are treated in India is as much a social problem as a legal one.
“To find solutions at the grass roots level, rehabilitate communities which are engaged in the trapping of birds, bust myths on owls, crack down on taxidermists, and develop rescue centres for owls” is what can solve the problem he says.
What readers can do this Diwali is keep your eyes open for such barbaric activities in your community and neighborhood and report the matter immediately to local animal rescue centres or even the police. When you celebrate Diwali to usher in light in your life, let the light not cease then in another creature’s life.