Owls massacred on Diwali

In the Lal Kurti area of Meerut city, members of the Baheliya community are busy. Working in small groups, they handle individual, sometimes pairs of owls brought in by trappers and poachers from the region and the hills of Uttarakhand. Diwali is less than a fortnight away, and the birds are in great demand.

They might be feared raptors of the night, but for the owls of India, the Diwali season holds deadly peril. The bird, because of its status as vehicle of the goddess of wealth Lakshmi, is sought for sacrifice in tantrik rituals during Diwali, which many feel bring prosperity and good fortune. A countrywide smuggling trade in owls is rampant during this season. So are the killings.

“There are 30 owl species in India and most of them are in the Red List of threatened or endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act. There is a sharp spike in their capture and trade during the Diwali season. The birds are subjected to brutal deaths through black magic rituals,” said Abrar Ahmad, an ornithologist who has been following the illegal bird trade.

The exact number of the birds trapped and killed each year has not yet been estimated. But it’s “large”. Amhad said: “Tribes like the Baheliyas are involved in trapping them in areas from Pilibhit, Meerut, Moradabad and Agra to Dehradun and Ambala. There are at least 16 tribes in India involved in the trade.”

The most common way of trapping owls is the latex and bamboo method. A latex-glue smeared twig is fitted onto one end of a long bamboo stick and is slowly moved towards the roosting owl perched on trees during daytime. The bird gets stuck to the twig and is pulled down. Then there is the ‘takkva’ method in which a long needle is thrust at the bird, frequently killing it.

The captured birds face a worse fate. “Every part of an owl’s body has significance in sorcery and black magic. A live owl buried during Diwali outside the door of a house is supposed to bring prosperity. In one of the rituals, the bird is even blinded before it is slowly killed over days.The tantriks are the real culprits,” Ahmed added.

“There is a lot of demand for owls in this season at bird markets here and elsewhere. Those who want owls, including tantriks, know where to ask. We just capture the birds. It is the tantriks who kill them,” said Manohar Baheliya, who is involved in the trade in Moradabad.

The price of an owl ranges from Rs.300 to Rs.50,000 for larger species. The most prized are the rock eagle owl, dusky eagle owl and brown fish owl.

Lalit Verma, forest conservator, western zone, Uttar Pradesh, said, “We have told DFOs in the zone to be on the alert and have deployed our men at bird markets. Rangers are also on the alert in forests.”

Parag Madhukar Dha-kate, forest conservator, western circle, Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, said the police department was assisting the forest department in trying to curb the trade during Diwali.

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