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Victims of recession

Last updated: 22 August, 2009
R Gopakumar in Thiruvananthapuram

Man’s brutality against animals

Some animals are used for black magic to help superstitous businessmen tide over the recession


The barn owl and red sand boa may be as dissimilar as chalk and cheese, one being a bird with night vision and the other a harmless snake with a tail that resembles a second head. What binds these beautiful animals together is the interest they have generated in recent times among smugglers and poachers in the southern states.

In Kerala, about 15 people were caught in the last four months while trying to smuggle out these protected species of animals. Ten wildlife traders were arrested on May 7 in Palakkad district with two red sand boas weighing over 3 kgs among their booty. Last month, two big red sand boas were smuggled out from the zoo and the government ayurveda college and research centre in Thiruvananthapuram.

The barn owl is known by several names like white owl, ghost owl, demon owl and even death owl. As the names, looks and features suggest, there are certain curious elements that make such birds and animals vulnerable to the vices of man. The smugglers claim that their customers are mostly businessmen based in Gujarat, Maharashtra and other north Indian states who resort to black magic to get over their dwindling fortunes. The demand had gone up in recent times thanks to the sweeping effect of the economic recession. Another superstition is that eating the eyes of the barn owl would improve eyesight since they had spectacular night vision. Owls fall under schedule - 1 of the Wild Life Act which forbids even rearing them at home.


The plight of the red sand boa, a harmless non-poisonous snake with a blunt tail resembling a head, is even worse. Believed to be the mythical ‘double-headed serpent’ the snake is supposed to bring a fortune to its keeper. The smugglers claim that a meteor shower in South India between 1000 AD and 1300 AD had deposited an isotope of iridium on earth which accumulated in the tissues of sand boa. This ‘bio-iridium’ claims to give magical and supernatural properties to the animal and that the extract from the snake could cure several chronic diseases like AIDS. This extract and even the blood of the snake find a place in the illegal trade as they are used as an aphrodisiac in Gulf countries. It is claimed that the snakes were being smuggled to China, South East Asia and Gulf Countries via Chennai and Bangalore.

Wild life experts point out that both the animals are  victims of media hype and superstition. “There is hardly any scientific basis for all these stories doing the rounds in the names of the owl and sand boa. They are all plain superstition because there is a curious element attached to these animals,’’ says Dr K K Ramachandran who heads the wild life division of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Peechi, Thrissur.  According to him, the barn owl has a ghostly appearance and is a nocturnal animal which cannot see properly in daylight. It takes shelter in old and dilapidated buildings and is easy prey to hunters. Similarly, the red sand boa’s twin headed appearance and colour gave it an exotic aura which seem to have been tapped by some smart alecs.

The Forest department maintains that all the talk about these animals fetching lakhs of rupees to the sellers is nonsense. “We have indeed caught several people trying to smuggle these animals. However, we found that none of those who actually committed the crime had received  the big money that these animals are claimed to fetch,’’ says Mr Gopinathan, chief conservator of forests (vigilance).

Fact file

Red Sand Boa (Do-muha in Hindi)
Scientific name: Eryx johnii
Distribution: Iran, Pakistan, India
Description:  Total body length is  61 cm. Adapted to burrowing, the head is wedge-shaped with narrow nostrils and very small eyes. Coloration varies from reddish-brown to dull yellow-tan.
Behaviour: When alarmed, coils up and raises the tail as if it were the head.

Barn owl (Kodhar ka ullu in Hindi)
Scientific name: Tyto alba stertens
Distribution: All over the world, except polar and desert regions.
Description:  Total body length is  25-45 cm. A pale, long-winged, long-legged owl with a short squarish tail.
Behaviour: Does not hoot,  instead produces the characteristic shree scream. It can hiss like a snake, and when captured or cornered, it throws itself on its back and flails with sharp-taloned feet, making for an effective defence.

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