Owls, the new target of illegal bird traders

June 3rd, 2008 - 10:29 am ICT by IANS  

By Sanjeeb Baruah
New Delhi, June 3 (IANS) Owls are becoming the latest target of illegal bird traders in India as they try ingenious ways to hoodwink the law with the demand for these nocturnal birds soaring in global markets. Bird experts say that three species of owls - the Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl and the Eurasian Eagle Owl - are currently in demand. Each of the birds could fetch between Rs.300,000 ($7,000) and Rs.500,000 ($11,800) in the global market.

These owls are mostly kept as pets, but some unconfirmed reports say they are also being used for research.

“Poachers catch these birds from the wild before selling them to traders. The agents then smuggle them to Europe and the Middle East via Nepal and Bangladesh,” said Devojit Das of NGO Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

After India banned the capture and trade in wild birds in the 1990s under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, the trade has gone underground.

“Today, trafficking is mostly carried out through the country’s porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh,” said Das, who is currently preparing a report and has interviewed people involved in the trade.

The three species of owls are found in almost all parts of the country, and no record exists of their numbers. These birds of prey are important to the environment as they help control the rodent population by preying on them.

“This indirectly helps the farmers by keeping the rat and mice population under control,” Das told IANS in an interview.

There are around 22 species of owls found in India, including the three that are being smuggled. If the illegal trade is not halted, it could abruptly bring down their numbers, experts say.

“The owls are in demand in the Middle East due to a research work that has been initiated to understand the night-vision capabilities of these birds, though there is no documentary evidence to establish the fact at the moment. But we plan to investigate it,” Das said.

“After the green munias and rose-ringed parakeets, it is now the owls that are being targeted,” said Jose Louis, who works with the enforcement department of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

There are some known areas where the illegal trade continues but detection is very difficult, said Louis.

Besides the owls, Rose-Ringed, Blossom Headed and Alexandrian parakeets are the preferred choices of buyers, who keep them as pets.

Parakeet collectors sell the chicks to middlemen for as low as Rs.20. Many die in captivity before they can reach the markets.

The bird trade is not just a matter of law and conservation but also a welfare issue, said Louis.

“Some skilled traders, who hand-rear the chicks, damage their wings so that they do not fly away. They also dislocate the lower part of the beak so that they can’t bite.”

Since the owls are bigger and weigh more than the parakeets, they are smuggled in ones and twos and not in bulk, making their detection by authorities difficult, experts say.

“Each adult owl of the three species could weigh around three kilograms and can be spotted at airports. Therefore, the traders use roads to take out the birds,” Das said.

Parakeets and munias are mainly picked up by domestic buyers, while some birds of prey, like the falcons and peacocks, reach as far as the Middle East, said Jose.

“The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act is not powerful enough to deter people involved in the trade. One can pay a fine and get away with the crime,” said Louis.

For importing exotic birds, permission is required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for custom clearance. However, the body can only inform the authorities concerned if there is any violation of its provision, a senior official told IANS on condition of anonymity.

(Sanjeeb Baruah can be contacted at sanjeeb.b@ians.in)

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