India’s Festival of Lights casts shadow over owls


Significant numbers of owls are being illegally trapped and sacrificed each year in India to supply rituals and ceremonies marking annual Diwali celebrations. While the exact number of owls traded domestically is unknown, estimates place the figure in the thousands.

TRAFFIC has issued an advisory to enforcement agencies calling for increased efforts to help curb the trafficking and sacrifice of owls that peaks around the annual Diwali “Festival of Lights” celebrations.

People gather for Diwali festivities in Assi Ghat, India. Of course, there are many elements of Diwali that do not involve animal sacrifice. Image credit Kristian Niemi, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The document is based on TRAFFIC’s investigations into the illegal owl trade in India, published in Imperiled Custodians of the Night. The investigation found that owls are consumed and traded for a wide variety of purposes, including for magic, street performances, taxidermy, private aviaries/zoos, food, use in folk medicines, capturing other birds, use of claws and feathers in making headgear, and eggs used in 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, magic rituals, 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.

A barn owl, seen here in the Indian state of Karnataka. Image credit Bikash Das, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Of the 30 species of owls found in India, 15 have been found in illegal wildlife trade. The spotted owlet (Athene brama), barn owl (Tyto alba) and rock eagle-owl (Bubo bengalensis) are the most commonly recorded species in trade.

“TRAFFIC’s advisory is a strong reminder of the 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.”
              Dr Saket Badola, IFS, Head of TRAFFIC’s India office

“As the practice of owl sacrificing begins with the start of the Dussehra festival, and moves on into Diwali, poachers involved with 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 added.

A rock eagle-owl, one of the three most common owls involved in illegal trade. Owls with tufts (or “ears”) like these are thought to have the greatest magical powers. Image credit David Merrett, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Owls in India are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of India, which prohibits hunting, trade or any other form of exploitation of live owls or their body parts. 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 ecosystems, and they benefit farmers by preying on small rodents and other crop pests, making their ongoing protection of high ecological, economic, and social importance.

Featured image: Two spotted owlets snuggle up on a branch in Bharatpur, India. This species is one of the three most commonly involved in illegal wildlife trade. Image credit aayush.dudhiya, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is a leading non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Our mission is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. Click to see author's profile.

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