New Delhi: Babu Baheliya is looking forward to Tuesday. He has been for a few months.
For Hindus, Tuesday night, a full-moon one, is among the most auspicious of the year. In some parts of the country, it is the night people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Ironically, it is also the day they sacrifice the goddess’ traditional mount, the owl, a blood-letting that is supposed to ward off bad luck and ensure prosperity.
Which is where Baheliya, a fifth-generation bird trader, comes in. From his base in the back alleys of Kumar Mohalla in Meerut, Baheliya will sell a few owls on Tuesday, pocketing a few tens of thousands of rupees.
Mythical value: Spotted owlets. Experts say the owl trade is widespread; most transactions take place through referrals and word of mouth. Photographs Courtesy of TRAFFIC India
The period between Dussehra and Diwali, the two biggest Hindu festivals in the second half of the year, is usually as bad for owls as much as it’s good for people like Baheliya. He can expect to make up to Rs50,000 by selling two or three owls. Demand rises to a peak at the time of Diwali, which is also an occasion for the worship of Lakshmi. The catalyst for the owl trade is often the tagline Bengal ka kaala jaadu or black magic, which is critical to swaying customers.
The owl is worshipped in some parts of the world, and despised in others. It is considered lucky in some, unlucky in others. And while the mythologies of some countries describe it as a wise and benevolent bird, others paint a picture of a small-minded and foolish bird.
Also See | Market demand (Graphic)
Thriving centres (Graphic)
Yet, it is universally seen as a special bird, with special magical powers. “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.
Inclusion in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 haven’t done much for the bird and, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, out of 32 species of owls in the country, 15 have been found in the illegal domestic bird trade.
India has around 50 illegal wild-bird trading centres where owls can be bought. Of these, 21 are so-called major bird markets and see trade in between 20,000 and 50,000 wild birds, including owls, every year.
Blind belief: Books on owl tantra and owl trading.
Most of them end up as sacrifices for rituals involving what is passed off as black magic. At the heart of it are tantriks or shamans. “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.
And there’s a huge demand for parts of an owl too. At tribal fairs and outside many places of worship, vendors sell charms made from the bones, beaks and talons of owls that promise to cure several ailments (pangolin scales and porcupine quills are also in demand). 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.
Apart from black magic, owls are regularly killed and their body parts used in folk medicine. 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.”
Some tribes also use owls that they capture as decoys to trap other 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. The trappers capture a jungle or collared owlet, 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.
Owls are also trapped, killed, stuffed and sold as zoological specimens to schools, colleges, and museums. The wholesale trade in stuffed birds is centred around Ambala (Haryana) and Kolkata.
Catering to the huge demand for owls is a huge illegal network. Experts say the trade is widespread, although most transactions take place through referrals and word of mouth.
In the north, Lucknow and Kanpur are nodes, selling owls captured in Rai Bareilly, Gambhirpura, Sandhi, Unnao, Bhargarmo and Kherabad in Uttar Pradesh. Bhadarabad (Haridwar) and Haldwani districts in Uttarakhand also supply a fair amount of trapped owls, which reach the Delhi market via Meerut and Moradabad, both in Uttar Pradesh.
In the east, Begusarai, Manjohol and Siwan in Bihar, and Ranchi in Jharkand are the main centres, with the birds being transported to Patna and Kolkata.
The Kalandar tribe, which used to capture and train sloth bears before the government clamped down on that, is active in the Shadhol–Indore–Katni–Bilaspur belt (Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh border), where it traps horned owls.
In peninsular India, Gwalior and Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, and Nagpur and Wardha in Maharashtra are active centres, with Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) serving as the node.
Identity change: A spotted owlet disguised to pass off as a rock eagle owl.
In the south, owls are trapped in Vellore, Ambur, Honsur, Villipuram, Salem and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, and transported to Chennai and Bangalore (Karnataka).
Indeed, the demand for horned owls—these fetch a premium—such as the rock eagle owl is so high that sometimes spotted owlets are disguised to look like them. 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.
The law can help only up to a point, says Ahmed, who believes the way owls (and other birds) are treated in India is as much a social problem as it is a legal and environmental one.
Huge flocks of the Indian roller are captured (resulting in significant casualties) and then released to commemorate Dussehra in parts of north India; the drums used in Durga Puja are usually decorated with egret plumes and at least 10-15 birds are slaughtered to decorate just one drum.
Apart from a change in mindsets, the aim, adds Ahmed, has to be “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”.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar