Popularly known as the ‘festival of lights’, Diwali marks the beginning of a new year in the Hindu calendar. People all around India celebrate the festival by lighting lamps, exchanging gifts, distributing sweets, and worshipping Goddess Lakshmi. According to Hindu mythology, the Goddess uses an owl, specifically the Barn owl, as her vehicle, or ‘vahana’. While one may witness how this festival lights up our streets, it is a dark time for the owls of India. Superstitions and misbeliefs revolve around this misunderstood species and threatens their population.
The owl accompanying the goddess of wealth symbolises wisdom to use the wealth and prosperity that the goddess bestows. However, several owls undergo ritualistic sacrifices owing to superstition in order to gain wealth. Some believe that by taking away Lakshmi’s vehicle, the goddess of wealth will remain in their home all year round.
Use of Owl Body Parts
Thousands of owls are used in black magic and sorcery linked with superstition, totems, and taboos across the country, especially around the time of Diwali. Misbeliefs and myths have led to an increase in the trafficking and poaching of these birds from the wild. Several body parts such as talons, skulls, bones, claws, heart, liver, eyes, fat, beak, feathers, meat, and blood, along with their tears and eggshells, are traded to be used in talismans, black magic, and traditional medicines.
While the exact number of owls traded and sacrificed remains unknown, such incidents unfortunately escalate during the Diwali season. Poachers and traffickers uproot the lives of owls living in the wild for monetary gain. Several states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttarakhand have emerged as hotspots for illegal trade, according to a report published by TRAFFIC in 2019.
Of over 30 species inhabiting India, the most commonly traded ones include: Rock eagle owl, Brown fish owl, Dusky eagle owl, Collared (or Indian) scops owl, and Mottled wood owl. Horned owls are generally sought for their ear tufts, which are believed to possess mystical properties. Infact, Spotted owlets are sometimes dyed to resemble the Horned owls. Latex from Ficus trees is applied on their head feathers to make them look like erect ears. Red colour is put in their eyes as well, a feature that is preferred by buyers.
Laws to Prevent Illegal Trade
All owl species found in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. While the Forest owlet is listed in Schedule I (marked for endangered species that need rigorous protection), all other species are listed in Schedule IV of the Act. This protection bans the trade, trapping, hunting, and any transportation involving these birds. In case of any offence, the accused will be liable to imprisonment between 3 and 7 years, and/or a penalty. International trade in owls is prohibited under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Forest owlets are listed in Appendix I of CITES, while all other owls are listed in Appendix II.
Despite the laws, rampant anthropogenic practices are leading to the loss of these marvellous creatures who have existed for over 50 to 60 million years. These fascinating raptors are integral to the ecosystem as they control prey populations of small birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates.
Rescues by Wildlife SOS
A couple of months ago, Wildlife SOS and the Gujarat Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GSPCA) in collaboration with the forest department in Vadodara seized a Barn owl from wildlife traffickers. In 2020, the Wildlife SOS-GSPCA Rapid Response Unit rescued eight Indian Eagle owls from smugglers suspected to be a part of Gujarat’s illegal wildlife trading community.
In 2019, the team also busted a gang of smugglers in illegal possession of an Indian Eagle owl. The bird was expected to be sold to tantriks for ritualistic purposes. The accused were immediately arrested and taken into police custody for further interrogation.
Owls that have been seized by our rescue team have often been found packed in suffocating gunny bags, with their legs tied. They are transported for several hours in harsh conditions, without provision of water, food, and space. The mystified tales surrounding these birds in India are never-ending. Since time immemorial, they have been associated with demonic rituals, spooky tales, and are a part of folklore as well.
Every year during Diwali, the Wildlife SOS Rapid Response Team is at work to curb sacrifices of these birds. If you ever come across any wild animal in distress in the following cities, please contact us:
Delhi NCR – +91 9871963535
Agra & Mathura in Uttar Pradesh – +91 9917109666
Vadodara, Gujarat – +91 9825011117
Jammu & Kashmir – +91 7006692300, +91 9419778280
You can learn about the anti-poaching efforts of Wildlife SOS here.