The nocturnal owl mostly goes unnoticed by most of us. But these birds of prey have a high selling price running up to Rs 40 lakh in a thriving black market.
On Friday, one such owl trafficking was busted in Karnataka Shivamogga district's Sorab taluk, nine arrested by Forest Department officials.
The accused have been identifed as Abdul Azim, Annappa Dyavasa, Ajjappa Karekoppa, Hanumathappa, Mrutyunjaya Tuduneeru, Shivamurthy, Marithi Chittur, Kamalakara and Raju Elukoti.
According to Range Forest Officer Bhagyavanth M Masudi, three of the accused, Abdul, Annappa and Ajjappa had been involved in the racket for over four-five years, while the others were recruited only a few months ago.
"Abdul Azim had given his contact number to people living in hamlets along the forest border in Anavatti. He had requested them to contact him if they spotted any owl or provide him details regarding the presence of owls in the area. The nine men also offered to pay compensation for the information."
The forest guards learnt of this development and alerted the forest officials. Abdul Aziz was arrested and upon questioning him, the others were nabbed as well, RFO Bhagyavanth said.
"The owls were being purchased at Rs 4-5 lakh from the locals and were being sold to a few people performing black magic at Rs 30-40 lakh per owl. An owl was found in the house of a man named Manjunath, who is also believed to be a part of this racket. He managed to escape but we are looking for him. We are also looking for those who bought the owls from the nine accused," RFO Bhagyvanth added.
The accused are said to have sold the owls to people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the officer said.
The forest officer also said that the accused are suspected to be involved in trafficking loris and two-headed snakes.
"Owls are poached by people as it is in high demand in black magic circles. Owl parts like the talons, blood and organs are in high demand. The bigger the size of the owl, the higher the price. However, the most vulnerable species of owl in India is the Indian Eagle Owl. In China, people use owl's talons in traditional medicine as they believe it has healing properties," said Arinita Sandily of Wildlife SOS.
Owls are considered to be the sacred mount of Goddess Lakshmi and based on a centuries-old belief, owls are sacrificed during Diwali in order to force the goddess of wealth and prosperity to remain in their homes for a year. Though the exact number of owls traded and sacrificed each year remains unknown, ahead of Diwali these incidents increase and take a more visible shape, Arinita added.
According to ornithologist Abrar Ahmed's Imperilled Custodians of The Night, of the 30 owl species recorded in India, 15 species were recorded to be in the domestic pet trade. The study states that, the Indian (Rock) Eagle owl, Brown fish owl, dusky eagle owl, Indian Scops owl and Mottled wood owl are five of the most traded owl species in the black market, making them a target for poachers. Horned owls like the "Indian Eagle Owl are most coveted for their false feather ear tufts (feather extensions on the head) which are considered to have mystical properties.