Written by Sameer Manekar
“People say owls are the harbingers of death. If you come across them, you are going to die,” says Dr Satish Pande, professor of ornithology at the Savitribai Phule Pune University. “If that is true, then this is my 10,000th rebirth. I must be immortal.”
He stands amid hundreds of crayoned and painted owls, hands inked with owl tattoos, and eyes looking at the crowd taking in his brainchild with curiosity and amazement.
The first ever Indian Owl Festival in the country bustled with youngsters and adults alike, taking in the colourful display of posters, sculptures, lanterns, lamp shades, origami work — all portraying the pitiful condition of owls.
The festival was recently organised by the Ela Foundation in the remote village of Pingori in Purandar taluka of Pune district. The walls of the NGO’s office were adorned with owls that are made of wheat, wool, coconut and lentils, among others. But all of them had one thing in common — their wide, yellow eyes that usually scare people to death, peering out at the spectators with silent hoots of help — ‘Save Us’, ‘Do Not Kill Us’, ‘I Am Farmer’s Friend’, and so on.
The children moved around with excitement on their faces. They watched a solo act performed by an owl-man, who was desperate for human being to heed its cry. They also watched skits performed by their fellow schoolmates, talking about the perils of owlets; listened to a poem recited by a young boy, singing the sorrow of a baby owl; heard the volunteers bust age-old superstitions; raise slogans of “Save the Owl”; queued up to get an owl tattooed on their forearm — all with one question in mind, why do we need to save owls?
According to Pande, a report titled “Imperilled Custodians of the Night” published by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC India in 2010, reveals existence of an illegal owl trade in the country, mostly for “black magic purposes, street performances, taxidermy, private aviaries/zoos, food, use in folk medicines” despite the trade of owl species being banned under Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India.
According to the report, bird trade includes “both large (rock eagle-owl) and small (spotted owlet) owl species inhabiting urban as well as forest regions”, with major hubs of trade being in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar.
“It is important for the farmer to realise that the owl on their farm is an asset, and not an ill omen,” says Pande. “When the farmer is aware of the importance of owl, they will automatically not allow poachers to lay hands on owls”
Realising the need to make the common people aware of the situation, Pande decided to organise the festival, focussing specifically on school children. “Youngsters are the future of our country. Only when they are aware of the reality concerning owls, will the situation be resolved,” he says.
“Most of these children are from agrarian families, so what they learn here will certainly get imbibed in their minds, and will carry forward with them.”
Prathamesh Kingre, a class 7 student of Learn and Play Secondary High School in Daund, says, “Owls are important for the nature. There is nothing in the nature that does not have a role, except for plastic. I am against the beliefs that owls are evil and need to be killed. They have all come from previous generations. How are we going to die just by looking at an owl? It is now time to understand the importance of these birds, in the ecosystem as well as in agriculture.”
Sitting in proper files around the posters, the children chatter incessantly, not heeding their teacher’s instructions. Pointing at a wooden owl, a nine-year-old girl asks another student, “Where do you see these owls?” The other girl says, “On trees, where else? But we are cutting the trees, so they are dying too.”