India's Black Market in Birds Threatening Rare Species

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Samar Singh, former secretary-general of the World Wide fund for Nature–India, called Ahmed's study on trade in India's wild birds "pioneering in its approach and analysis, since several hitherto unknown aspects of the trade in birds have been brought out."

Asad R. Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, who supervised Ahmed's study, said: "Ahmed employed his own creative methods to follow the trappers and traders without raising their suspicion, and for the first time in India, exact trade routes within and outside the country have been exposed."

Ahmed determined that wild birds are captured for at least seven reasons, which helps explain why the practice is so prevalent and difficult to halt.

Religious Bird-Release Business

Besides the usual practices of trapping birds as pets and for food, zoological and medicinal purposes, or taxidermy, Ahmed found that several species of birds that are poor candidates as pets and for consumption are often captured for the bird-release business.

This is a uniquely Indian religious tradition. Among Hindus, Jains, and a few other communities, there is a belief that releasing birds that are held in captivity can purify the soul and relieve personal sins.

On auspicious days, people go and buy these birds from traders for release. This has led to the development of an entire business around the religious custom. Species of wild birds that are unsuitable as pets or food are captured and brought near these holy places for the devout to purchase and re-release.

He also discovered that some important protected species like the horned owl were hunted for black magic rituals and sorcery, such as the practice of certain tribes that use the owls to purify "amulets" during their street performances.

Finally, although the sport of falconry is now a vanishing art in India, a large number of wild raptors are caught every year to smuggle to the Middle East, where falconry is still popular.

Alarming Picture

While the problem of illegal trade in wild birds in India is widely apparent, Ahmed had a difficult time quantifying the number of birds affected each year. Yet even his best estimates paint an alarming picture.

A detailed analysis of water birds offers one example. In a survey Ahmed conducted in one market where water birds were traded, about a hundred birds a week were being captured and traded. With the waterfowl season lasting five months, this means that some 2,000 birds were being sold from a single marketplace in only one season. There are at least 20 such markets in northern India alone, which adds up to 40,000 water birds being sold in a single season.

Accurate figures on the capture of wild birds for local consumption are impossible to obtain because of the secretive nature of the practice. It's known, however, that species ranging from pelican to ducks and waders are caught for consumption.

Added to these huge losses is a large number of bird deaths during international transit. Ahmed estimates that for every bird that reaches its final destination, two die en route. The mortality of wild birds during transit is thought to have increased since the trade ban was put into effect because of the extra efforts that are made to conceal the illicit cargo.

"Thanks to the ban, the trade in wild caught birds has now gone covert," said Ahmed. "As a sad consequence of it, today the mortality of [wild captured] birds has gone up even higher."

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