A spotted owlet with inkstained eyes
in danger: owls
Bringer of fortune, foreteller of death—the vice of superstition is tearing the life out of Indian owls

Ruffled Plumage

Why owls are the target of poachers and trappers:

  • Used for tantrik rites and occult practices
  • Are believed to bring riches, as Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, rides on one
  • In South India, owls’ hoots are thought to predict fate – one signifying imminent death, two, imminent success, three, a marriage, etc.
  • Tantriks and rural medicine men prescribe: owl-eye broth for night-vision, owl claws as good luck charms, owl feathers to repel evil spirits, owl meat as aphrodisiac, owl torture for directions to hidden treasure.

Price they fetch: from Rs 5,000 up to Rs 8 lakh for Barn Owl or Great Horned Owl

Threatened species: Barn Owl, Eastern Grass Owl, Collared Scops Owl, Great Horned Owl (Eurasian Eagle Owl), Brown Fish Owl, Spotted Owlet, Jungle Owlet, Asian Barred Owlet

Most in demand: in Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP, MP, Orissa, West Bengal

Why we need them: to control rodents and other pests that destroy crops

***

Demon birds. Death-portending banshees. Soul-eaters. Owls attract foreboding and superstitious epithets as naturally and irresistibly as pandas attract fond baby-talk and tigers attract awestruck poetry. Their nocturnal nature, their devil-like horns, their sudden screeching from ancient tree-hollows in cemeteries, or the unnerving way they twist their heads around to fix you in a piercing, lidless stare -- all of these traits have long earned them spooky pride of place, along with the bat, in fearful folk tales and horror films. Now, they’re also earning them death sentences, thanks to tantriks and medicine men, who use them in black magic rituals and ‘miracle-cures’ for their gullible clientele.


Great Horned owl and Brown fish owl

Abrar Ahmed, consultant with Traffic, a body which monitors wildlife trade, has been tracking the owl trade for the past three years – more than a decade after he first stumbled on it while researching a countrywide report on the illegal bird trade. His research has taken him to desolate trappers’ houses along the tribal belt to village markets spanning all of north India, and the bird bazaars of bigger cities like Lucknow and Delhi. "There are 29 species of owls in India," says Ahmed. "Of these, half are used for some nefarious purpose or the other."

The most common purpose is witchcraft. As the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the owl is associated with wealth. So, those hoping to strike it rich with the help of an occult boost visit tantriks around the festive season of Diwali and Durga Puja. The tantriks then conduct owl-sacrifices, anoint their customers with sacrificial owl blood and give them an owl-claw; guaranteed, they say, to act as a lightning rod for a massive fortune. This sounds like a gruesome, senseless activity, but it’s one that even educated, city-dwelling denizens of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Calcutta indulge in.

Industrialists, particularly in these bleak recession times, willingly fork out up to 8 lakh for a gold-and-grey Barn Owl or a Great Horned Owl (Eurasian Eagle Owl).

 
 
The owl trade is tough to trace now. Owls are procured specifically on request and kept well out of sight.
 
 
Since these species are hard to find, trappers and middlemen often try to disguise the poor little Spotted Owlet as a juvenile Horned Owl by fashioning ear-tufts out of pasted feathers, and staining its eyes with toxic orange-coloured ink.

Village haats and small-town markets abound in luridly illustrated black magic booklets that advocate owl-bone amulets as charms, owl-eye broth for improving night-vision, owl-meat for rheumatism, seizures, and as an aphrodisiac. "We’ve come across some stomach-turning recipes," says Samir Sinha, Head of Traffic, "Concoctions with owls’ ear-tufts, brains and eyes, to hypnotise someone and make them a slave for life." Some booklets also recommend that owls – when tortured or starved – will be persuaded to reveal, in a human voice, the locations of hidden treasure. As Sinha ruefully observes, "There’s no end to human stupidity or faith, and there’s a thin line between the two!"

Bird-baiting is another market force that drives the owl-trade, though to a significantly smaller extent. Owls – particularly the Spotted Owlet and Jungle Owlet – serve as decoys for bird trappers trying to catch bulbuls and sunbirds for the pet trade. Trappers use the owlets as conspicuous bait, and have cruel means of keeping them stationary, such as stitching their eyes closed and forcefeeding them enormous quantities of mice so that they become sluggish . Owls are also used in street performances, ‘blessing’ amulets for onlookers to purchase. Some adivasi folk, such as the Bahelias and Chirimars of Central India, even eat the white-faced Grass Owl for the stringy, meagre sustenance it offers them.


Barn owl

What makes the illegal owl-trade daunting to track is that it’s gone totally underground since a blanket ban on the bird trade was put in place in 1991. Now, owls are procured specifically on request, and kept out of sight, though a few furtive enquiries in village haats will often yield a sorcerer’s starter-kit: a grimy cloth bundle of owl meat, claws and feathers. "Despite my best efforts," says Ahmed, "I never managed to see owl sacrifice with my own eyes. It’s a closely guarded secret. Even though, like prostitution, it’s very widespread, you can’t see the act." Unless you’re paying, that is.

Being an owl researcher, on the other hand, does get him some odd requests. Such as that of a friend’s wife, who recently asked him for a Snowy Owl - which, in fact, is not found in India. "She said, ‘You’re an expert, you’ll know where to get me a snowy-white owl, like Hedwig, for my son’s Harry Potter theme party.’ I told her to make herself one out of thermocol," recalls Ahmed indignantly.


Forced perch: A mottled wood owl, a threatened species, in the hut of a trapper in MP

Word of the growing demand for owls and the astronomical prices they can fetch has made its way down south. Trappers are descending into forests and grasslands, and coming out with sackfuls of Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls and Scops Owls. These are among the six species of owls that are being trafficked to the north, according to recent reports from Kerala. Trappers have set to work in Chennai too. Recently, a group of naturalists dismantled traps around nesting sites of the Great Horned Owl in a rocky outcrop in the outskirts of the city.

While the scale of the owl-trade may be negligible compared to the trade in popular ‘ornamental’ parakeets or munias, the immediate ecological impact is far graver. As predators, owls are highly effective pest-control agents. A single Horned Owl snacks on at least three large, plump rats per day. So, when the owl population decreases, the rodent population increases exponentially, laying waste to crops. That’s why forest officials in Kerala have noticed an increasingly flourishing rodent population in the state. Farmers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have taken to putting up attractive perches to lure owls to dine on the pests ravaging their fields.

In South Indian cities, however, owls are not made to feel quite as welcome, mostly due to prevalent superstitious beliefs, such as one that holds that a single owl hoot is an omen of imminent death. Says Chennai-based naturalist Anantanarayan Rajaram: "Tenants who share my flat complex want strong lights to be installed on the roof to ward off the Barn Owls that seek shelter there, because they consider all owls to be harbingers of evil." Kerala city dwellers tend to be equally hostile, he adds. "There, the Brown Wood Owl is held in fear for its call: ‘powwa powwa’, which means "Going, going", and signifies that a person around the area will die soon."

Sadly, at the rate at which owls are getting decimated, the next dolorous ‘to-whoot’ you hear may well be signalling its own end.


A slightly shorter version appears in print

Click here to see the article in its standard web format