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In India, owl's mythic power, pop culture presence fuels illegal trading

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 8:55 PM

IN MEERUT, INDIA Mehmood Ali is a carpenter by day and shaman by night. He says he heals people battling anxiety, sleeplessness, curses and misfortune.

The soft-spoken, 50-year-old Ali uses body parts of owls in his elaborate sorcery rituals for healing. Trade in owls was made illegal in India in 1972, but trafficking for such rituals is carried on clandestinely across the country.

In a crowded lane in the heart of the industrial town of Meerut, about 45 miles northeast of New Delhi, half a dozen small, dingy shops sell several species of caged birds as pets. The owls are not displayed like the other birds, and shopkeepers deny they sell them. But that's where Ali says he can get an owl for $250 and its nails and feathers for as little as $20.

An 18-year study of the illegal owl trade in India titled "Imperilled Custodians of the Night," published last month by the World Wildlife Fund, says, "Owls and their body parts are primarily used for black magic." It reports that the most popular owls for rituals among the 32 species that live on the Indian subcontinent are ones with prominent ear tufts, such as the rock eagle owl, or feather tufts that stick up like long ears, such as the brown fish owl. The most common owl in India, the spotted owlet, does not have those characteristics, so traders sometimes use latex to make a few feathers stand up to resemble horns.

The clientele are either from tribal areas, where the majority of people are superstitious and use both live and dead owls to ward off evil spirits, or from towns and cities, where demand is created by practicing shamans, or tantriks, as they are called. People turn to these practitioners for all sorts of problems, from marital to business to health, and even for setting a curse on another or releasing themselves from one.

"Owl is the king of the birds and has enormous powers. When I chant into an owl's nail and give it as a talisman, it cures sleeplessness and restlessness. When I chant into the feather from an owl's breast and make a talisman, then the owl speaks in your dream and shows you the way," said Ali with pride, baring his reddish, betel-stained teeth. "If you want to vanquish your enemy, then owl's blood and bones are used." He chants next to the live owl for hours by the river at night before the bird is purified and made effective for magical remedies.

India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said that more children were being given owls as pets because of the immensely popular books and movies about Harry Potter and his feathered companion, Hedwig. "There seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls," he said.

Domestic research in owls has grown since the forest owlet, thought to be extinct, was rediscovered in India in 1997 by American ornithologists Ben F. King and Pamela C. Rasmussen.

"There is no scientific owl census in India, but ornithologists have reported in the past two decades that the chances of spotting an owl are becoming difficult," said Samir Sinha, head of India's branch of Traffic, the trade watchdog of the WWF. "The threat to the owl in India is twofold. One is the habitat loss because the old tree forests are shrinking. Then there is the hidden and dramatic threat of human superstitions driving the owl trade."

Sinha said that police seizures of smuggled owls show that India is a major supplier of the birds to neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh, where they are used in similar rituals. "Owls and owl parts are regularly seized in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand," he said.

The morbid and mysterious powers associated with them across civilizations have fueled the illegal trade in the region. An owl is the vehicle on which Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, travels and is often worshiped for bringing prosperity. Because the owls are nocturnal birds, they are associated with secret powers of the spirit or with death.

"Birds like owls are sold at a premium, brought in only following a specific request by a customer for use in black magic. Often they are delivered to the client's doorstep," the WWF report says. "Therefore such trade remains undocumented, as the sold specimens are secretly sacrificed."

It adds that by 2008, market prices of owls had risen up to 10 times the level of six years earlier and that there are at least 50 active selling hubs in India. Abrar Ahmed, the ornithologist who wrote the report, said prices rose due to a dwindling owl population and increased difficulty in hunting and trading since being made illegal.

"The book of owl rituals called 'Ullu Tantra' has about 150 formulas. The diversity of uses of owl body parts is so large that it takes a toll on the owl population and makes it vulnerable. Even owl tears and egg shells are listed," said Abrar. "The trade has picked up dramatically in recent years. People are turning to these kinds of superstitious beliefs to ward off misfortune. Classified black magic ads in daily newspapers in small towns routinely promise relief from urban stress, business loss and illnesses."

Before Diwali, the most auspicious Hindu festival of lights, in November, researchers noted a sharp spike in ritualistic sacrifice of owls to please the goddess Lakshmi. Owl eggs and eyeballs are used in folk recipes and potions by some tribal communities, and its meat is considered an aphrodisiac. Owls are used by some street performers, and parts are sold outside courthouses to people anxiously awaiting verdicts.

Recently, Mehmood Ali recalled buying a live owl for a ritual. But he dreamed that night that its parents came and warned him against killing the little owl.

"The parents of the owl said if I harm their child, they will curse my children too," he said.

The next morning, Ali released the little owl in the woods.

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