It’s the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, whose blessings many Indians seek on Deepawali. Ironically, the festival of lights is also when the owl is the most threatened. Every year around Deepawali, these shy, mostly nocturnal birds of prey are trapped and hunted in large numbers as tantriks, sorcerers, and practitioners of black magic use them in occult sacrifice.
In Uttarakhand, whose forests are home to many of the more than two dozen species of owl found in India, the Forest Department has sounded a statewide alert and officials have increased their vigil to try and foil poachers.
Leave of field staff have been cancelled, they have been asked to increase patrolling, and activate informers in and around forests in order to detect suspicious activity.
“Occultists perform certain rituals with owls on Diwali. They also sacrifice the bird to appease Goddess Lakshmi, with the superstition that this would bring them wealth and prosperity,” a senior forest officer said.
“Occultists also extract bones, claws, and feathers of owls and sell them illegally,” the officer said. “Usually, tantriks perform such rituals on the night of Diwali. The poaching of owls, therefore, increases around Diwali.”
The officer said the Department had increased its vigil especially in forest areas with temples, and on the borders of the state to check the entry of poachers and smuggling of the birds. Chief Wildlife Warden J S Suhag confirmed that an alert has been issued to field staff. While the poaching of owls especially around Deepawali has been flagged by wildlife conservationists for over a decade now, the Uttarakhand Forest Department has no recent data on the problem.
In 2019, a total 138 incidents of wildlife crime, including 47 cases of poaching, were recorded in the state, but none of them was related to owls. This year, 88 wildlife crime cases had been registered until October 31, including 37 cases related to poaching, but again, none of them were about owls.
A forest officer in the Haldwani range said that while “there may be no specific registered cases of poaching of owls”, the chances of poaching “definitely increase at the time of Diwali”.
Mohan Singh Rawat, Range Officer, Dehradun Zoo, said, “People usually call me to ask about procedures to adopt different wild animals and birds in the zoo. But before Diwali, most callers ask about owls. I receive seven or eight such calls every day.”
There are12 owls in the zoo, three of which were adopted recently by people who agreed to pay Rs 5,000 annually for the bird. Once an owl is adopted, the zoo displays the name and address of the adopter outside the enclosure.
Lalit Prasad, a priest in Haridwar, expressed dismay at the idea of killing owls on Deepawali.
“Only tantriks sacrifice owls, and it is wrong. The owl is the vaahan of Goddess Lakshmi, how can you appease Her by killing it?” he said.
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