With barely a few hours left for Diwali puja, owls are in peril. It is believed that owl sacrifice on the night of Diwali brings prosperity and drives away evil. The bird, said to be the vehicle of the goddess of wealth Laxmi, is sought especially for sacrifices in Tantrik rituals during Diwali.
Days before Diwali Owls are trapped and sold at a premium. “At times, owls are sold for as much as Rs one lakh because the demand exceeds the supply. The ”baheliya” (bird catcher) community has taken to other trades and a very small number pursues bird catching,” said a bird seller in the weekly Nakkhas market in Lucknow.
The Dudhwa National Park is a favourite hunt for the bird catchers since more than one variety of owls are found here. According to experts, Rampur, Moradabad and Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh are also the biggest hub of bird trade.
According to a forest official, “There are 30 owl species to be found 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 rise in owl trade during the Diwali season and the birds are subjected to brutal deaths through the black magic rituals.”
Hunting and trade of Indian owl are banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India. The official said that these birds are caged, their legs tied and wings trimmed and sometimes even glued, so as to prevent them from flying and escaping.
Certain sections of the Hindus worship these birds, particularly during Diwali and the poachers make money. The Indian Roller (Neelkanth) is another bird that is widely believed to be sacred to Lord Vishnu, and hence sighting the bird during the festival is considered to be auspicious.
Bird watchers claim that the Neelkanths are caught and taken to various temples for “darshan” during Diwali. Devotees make substantial donations on sighting the bird. It is said that if a person sees a Neelkanth and makes a wish, the bird will take the wish to Lord Shiva on the Kailash mountain, who will fulfil the wish.
Black magic and sorcery driven by superstition is one of the prime reasons that has boosted the illegal bird trade and poaching.
Abhijeet Sinha, a member of an animal welfare NGO, said: “There is no religious text backing this belief, but the illegal activities are thriving only on superstition. People buy these birds on the instructions of Tantriks.”
He further said: “Tantriks prescribe the use of owls and their body parts such as skull, feathers, ear tufts, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, feet, beak, tears, eggshells, meat and bones for ceremonial Puja and rituals.”
The bird seller in Nakkhas market admitted that the demand for owls and Neelkanth keeps soaring with every passing year. “We have sold 17 owls in the past two days and one of them was sold for Rs 80,000,” he disclosed.