HP & owl

As regular readers would know I have a long-standing interest in ethno-ornithology in particular and ethnobiology in general.

A couple of days ago a report from BBC South Asia alerted me to an alarming connection between the popular book and film character Harry Potter, a strange conjunction of traditional and contemporary beliefs about birds and the trade in wild birds – particularly owls, in India.

The BBC report quoted Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh as blaming the fans of boy wizard Harry Potter for their role in the dwindling number of wild owls in that country.

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He said that Harry Potter books and films featuring his feathered friend Hedwig are popular in India and had contributed towards the demise of owls. Mr Ramesh said there had been an increase in people wanting to buy them from illegal bird traders. He was speaking to mark the launch of a report on India’s owl population. “Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls,” Mr Jayram said.

In the past couple of days the story has (sort of ) gone viral, with Google News reporting 150 stories on the topic of Harry Potter & Owls.

Spotted Owlet chicks in the Chowk market, Hyderabad, India. Photo: Abrar Ahmed
Spotted Owlet chicks in the Chowk market, Hyderabad, India. Photo: Abrar Ahmed

But, as is the way in many of these stories, the truth may be somewhat different – though it certainly appears that India’s owls are in serious trouble. I followed my nose and came across a report prepared for TRAFFIC International by Abrar Ahmed titled “Imperilled Custodians of the Night: A Study on Illegal Trade, Trapping and Use of Owls in India“.

Young Rock Eagle-Owls used in street performances
Young Rock Eagle-Owls used in street performances. Photo: Abrar Ahmed

With regard to the Harry Potter issue Abrar Ahmed notes that in early 2008 he:

…received a call from a wealthy friend’s wife requesting a favour. To my surprise, she asked for a live white-coloured owl to be present at her son’s tenth birthday party. Knowing my association with birds, she was quite confident that I would heed to her request. Perplexed, I asked if I was to provide the owl as a gift or whether it was required for some black magic ritual on her son’s birthday. She quickly clarified: “No, the party theme is ‘Harry Potter’ and we have to have ‘Hedwig’ – Harry’s pet owl. Please ask someone to capture and bring the owl to us. We can pay the cost.” Owls make up part of Harry Potter’s magical world, both on the silver screen and in the original books by J. K. Rowling…Unaware of the seriousness of such an action under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 or the penalties involved, she kept requesting me to arrange for an owl. This was probably one of the strangest demands made to me as an ornithologist. After her call I began my research into the “Hedwig” trade.

Abrar Ahmed then turns to a broader analysis of the wild bird trade in India:

In India, owls are highly prized and in demand for black magic purposes, despite legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and their inclusion in Appendix I or Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although illegal, the trade and utilization of owls is widespread and thus poses a potential conservation threat if carried out at unsustainable levels. Domestic trade in owls is highly lucrative, and owls remain a key target for several tribes connected with the bird trade, several of whom make a living from the owl trade. Amongst tribal communities, there appears to be little appreciation of current wildlife laws, whilst the laws are generally known about but flouted by owl traders…The investigation was made particularly difficult because of the covert nature of the trade. Ever since the Indian wild bird trade ban, most dealers involved in this trade have become ultra cautious and it required extra effort to uncover relevant information.

Despite the fact that owls are generally not openly displayed or advertised, it was apparent that their trade was reasonably widespread. One possibility is that recent clampdowns on the trade in domesticated birds is causing traditional bird traders and trappers to shift back to trading in wild birds which have a higher value. Owls fit the bill perfectly: due to the number of superstitions and traditions surrounding them within India they are always in demand and, consequently, attract a high premium. Indeed, prices for traded owls have risen considerably since 2002.

Abrar Ahmed then examines some of the fascinating aspects of the relationships between humans and Owls:

Since ancient times, humankind has had a special fascination for owls. Owls have a human-like quality that many people find irrestibly endearing, with their large eyes positioned on the front of the head and, in some cases, false “ears” (actually feather tufts). This human-like appearance of owls, combined with their nocturnal habits and haunting calls, invokes fear and superstition among people of many different cultures. Few other groups of birds have spawned such a wealth of diverse and often contradictory beliefs. Across different cultures, owls are sometimes feared or venerated, despised or admired, considered lucky or unlucky, and wise or foolish. Owls are associated with a wide range of myths, folklore and superstitions concerning black magic and witchcraft, prophecy, birth, death and many other natural and unnatural phenomena.

He then expands on the India-specific aspects of cultural knowledge and beliefs related to Owls:

…myths and superstitions propagated by witch doctors and traditional healers result in owls still being subject to heavy exploitation in India. Owls and their body parts are used to treat various ailments. Their meat is considered a potent aphrodisiac. Parts of owls or their eggs feature in various folk recipes and potions.

In the Rigveda (an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns), owls are referred to as Uluka and Khargala. They are noted for their fearful cries that foretell ill-fortune and are offered as a sacrifice to the trees of the forest. The owl is associated with the goddess Chamunda and appears in iconography as her vehicle from the 5-6th century AD onwards. Yet, interestingly, owls are rarely seen in Indian art. A few owl-like terracotta figurines have been found at Harappa and Inamgaon, although their purpose is unknown, and isolated owl figurines have been discovered at Vaishali (Bihar) and Kaushambhi (Uttar Pradesh) in archaeological levels.

Ma Kokhi (Goddess Lakshmi)
Ma Kokhi (Goddess Lakshmi)

With a total of 32 species, the Indian sub-continent has a great diversity of Owl species. According to Abar Ahmed’s research at least thirteen species were the subject of the illegal live trade. As for the scale of that trade, Ahmed identified 22 major markets and localities with an estimated minimum turnover of between 20 to 50,000 birds. Ahmed identified a number of uses for birds and bird parts, including for black magic, street performances, in taxidermy, in Zoos, for food, as folk medicines, as decoys to catch other bird species, as decorative headgear, for gambling and a range of other miscellaneous uses.

The primary use for birds is for ‘black magic’ purposes.

Owls and their body parts are primarily used for black magic. There is a regular organized trade in live owls. The clientele are either from tribal areas where the majority of people are superstitious and use owls to ward off evil spirits or from towns and cities where demand is created by practicing tantriks. Such tantriks claim to be able to cure a variety of maladies and ill fortune, ranging from desire for a male child, prolonged sickness, infertility, the need for a vashikaran (to control someone). Even politicians and industrialists are said to be regular clients.

The tantrik prescribes rituals to be performed using owl parts or involving live owl parts or involving live owl sacrifices on auspicious days such as the amavasyas (new moon night). The Amavasya of Diwali is deemed the most auspicious time for Owl sacrifices. It is said that local shamans can kill and Owl and take its soul, its power, and put it in a tabiz (an amulet). the owl power will then guide the seeker to find wealth. Black magic practices are either passed on from an Ustad (master) to a pupil or through books available at religious bookstores prescribing owl uses and related craft.

Despite the short-lived newsworthiness of linking the illegal trade in India’s birds to the Harry Potter franchise it doesn’t appear to me that there is much of a connection between the popularity of that franchise and the widespread trade in birds in India. But the “Imperilled Custodians…” report does highlight a number of serious issues about that trade, including the transformation of traditional beliefs into a contemporary society, the real impacts of the trade in wild birds trades and the nature of many traditional beliefs – particularly ‘black magic.’

From a personal and professional point of view the “Imperilled Custodians…” report contains some fascinating new information on the traditional beliefs of this most fascinating country. I’m particularly attracted to the discussion on “Superstitions and Totems Concerning Owls In India” towards the end of the report.

I’m looking for flights for early in the New Year – anyone up for a trip to the sub-continent?

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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