When you think of the high-value products of wildlife trade, elephant tusks, rhino horns or tiger hides might come to mind. Yet plenty of lower-profile animals funnel through the black markets of the world, from turtles to pangolins (the most trafficked mammals on the planet). 

And in India, some of the most vigorous wildlife commerce centres on owls. 

While capturing and selling any of India's 30-odd species of owl is forbidden under its 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act, the underground market is brisk. A 2010 report by ornithologist Abrar Ahmed for the conservation group TRAFFIC – titled "Imperiled Custodians of the Night" – revealed that at least half of the country's native owls figure into domestic trade.

Ahmed estimated that at least 20,000 to 50,000 wild birds are traded in India each year. Though it's unknown exactly how many of these are owls, there's no question that demand for the nocturnal birds of prey is wide-ranging.

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A juvenile dusky eagle-owl rescued from smugglers in Agra by Wildlife S.O.S. The smugglers had trimmed off the bird's talons. Image: Wildlife S.O.S/Facebook

The animals are used as decoys to capture songbirds and parakeets (which are prone to mobbing owls in the daytime), presented in street performances and even pitted against peregrine falcons in staged contests. At the time of Ahmed's report, owls were also being taken from the wild to be kept as pets: demand kindled (as elsewhere) by the Harry Potter franchise, which prominently features the companion owls of wizards.

But much of the owl trafficking in India concerns their use in folk medicine and "black magic". Superstitions about owls are by no means restricted to this country: with their big, blazing eyes, afterhours habits and unnerving calls, the birds have supernatural and often occult associations in many parts of the world. In India, tantriks and other practitioners use owls and their parts for such purposes as curing illness, combatting evil spirits, bringing good fortune and facilitating witchcraft.

While trade in owls for black magic goes on year-round, certain seasons see significant spikes – especially the weeks approaching the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, which fell on October 29-30 this year. Diwali honours the goddess Lakshmi, and because owls are considered her vaahan, or vehicle, some believe their sacrifice on the holiday night of the new moon assures favour with the deity, who's associated with prosperity. 

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A spotted eagle owl seized from poachers in New Delhi last year. The bird's wings had been clipped so it was unable to fly. Image: Wildlife S.O.S/Facebook

A 2015 Hindustan Times investigation into the owl trade at Old Delhi's Kabootar Bazaar – which found dealers selling larger owls for 15,000 rupees (around $US220) and offering to kill the birds for buyers on Diwali for an additional fee – quoted a priest explaining the tradition: 

"The idea behind this ritual of owl sacrifice is to not let the goddess of wealth leave your house. So, on Diwali night, when Lakshmi enters your house, if you sacrifice her vaahan she will stay with you forever."

Just last month, another report on Diwali owl sacrifices from the Times of India noted that the trade's epicenter could be found in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, particularly the Agra district. And while the 2010 TRAFFIC report played a role in bringing much-attention to the plight of owls, the situation was now "back to square one", Ahmed told the paper. 

"Owls are sold at a premium, brought in only after a specific demand is made, generally for black magic, or during the Diwali season for sacrifice," he said. "They are often delivered right to the buyer's doorstep. Therefore such trade remains undocumented, since most of the birds are then sacrificed."

Among the species most sought-after by traders for black magic or Diwali ceremonies are large horned birds such as rock and dusky eagle-owls, as well as the brown fish-owl, all coveted for their size and ear tufts. According to World Wildlife Fund-India, traders sometimes attach fake tufts to smaller owls in an effort to boost their market value.

Ahmed's report also details some of the methods used to capture live owls for the market – from flushing them into hanging nets, to plucking them from nests as fledglings, and even smoking them out of crevices and hollows. Trappers may also snag the birds off their daytime roosts, using bamboo poles forked with twigs and smeared with a natural latex glue made from fig sap and mustard oil. Another technique uses the same adhesive on twigs arranged around a tethered insect, mouse or bird, so as to ensnare any owls that swoop down on these potential meals.

Besides the glaring animal-rights issues, the Indian owl trade poses a real threat to the local survival of these avian hunters, which perform a crucial ecological service as predators of rodents, birds, snakes, insects and other small animals. 

That beneficial role doesn't go unrecognised in India. The TRAFFIC report notes that farmers in Kerala will position tree stumps amid their fields to serve as perches for owls and other birds of prey, hoping they'll lend a talon or two in controlling crop-raiding mice and rats.

The idea of owls as free-flying "vermin"-eaters is something conservationists hope to promote as they work to increase awareness among local communities. But those efforts are complicated by the divine link between owls and Lakshmi, and the significant price tags on captive specimens that result.

Still, groups such as TRAFFIC and the WWF-India continue to spread the word about India's underground owl trade – and they hope to convince the Diwali devout that the birds are worth more alive (and free) than dead.


Top header image: Ben Fredericson, Flickr