Harry Potter Meets Biodiversity

From all-creatures.org
Animal Rights Articles

Moo-ving people toward compassionate living

Visit our Home Page
Write us with your comments

Harry Potter Meets Biodiversity

By Bee Friedlander, Animals and Society Institute
November 2010

Author J.K. Rowling has said: “If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: please don't." One hopes she would be just as forceful in discouraging misguided parents who use snowy owls as party props.

An alarming number of animal species today are on the brink of extinction, or face threats to their existence. Last month, the international (caveat: the US is the only major country not a signatory) Convention on Biodiversity, an organization which is an outgrowth of the UN’s Environmental Programme, held its 10th Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan. A 10-year strategic plan was developed including 20 targets designed to “tackle the extinction crisis.”

The meeting coincided with the release of an updated “Red List of Threatened Species™”, widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative inventory of the status of plant and animal species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). “The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s vertebrates confirms an extinction crisis with one-fifth of species threatened.” Using data from over 25,000 species, the results show that “on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian move closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation and invasive alien species.” Harvard professor E.O. Wilson puts the study in context: “The ‘backbone’ of biodiversity is being eroded. One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place.”

The Red List study authors concluded that world-wide conservation efforts over the past few decades are working, while cautioning that “their study represents only a minimum estimate of the true impact of conservation, highlighting that some nine percent of threatened species have increasing populations. Their results show that conservation works, given resources and commitment. They also show that global responses will need to be substantially scaled up, because the current level of conservation action is outweighed by the magnitude of threat.”

Nonetheless, convention attendees sounded an optimistic note. The IUCN’s Director General stated: “We’ve seen history in the making here in Nagoya with a landmark agreement now in place that defines the future for life on earth.” Another official summarized the convention’s accomplishments thusly: “What we’ve decided at this meeting will change the future of life on Earth - and many solutions are available to us.”

The upbeat assessment must be considered in light of another study published less than a week after the Nagoya conference. That study is of the plight of owls in India, which is in a part of the world, Southeast Asia, that the Red List report singles out as having “experienced the most dramatic recent losses…” of species. The study was published by TRAFFIC-India and World Wildlife Fund-India. TRAFFIC is the wildlife trade monitoring network and a joint program of IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund.

“Imperilled Custodians of the Night” is an 80 page study released last week; the “use of owls in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos is one of the prime drivers of the covert owl trade, finds a TRAFFIC India investigation into the illegal trade, trapping and utilization of owls in India.” At least 15 and the 30 species of owls in India are compromised by these practices, but there are other causes of their decline: destruction of their habitat; their use in street performances, for taxidermy, and for meat; and use of their body parts in folk medicine and for (human) headgear.

And there is one additional threat to India’s owls, one that can serve as a poster child for the impact we humans have on the decline of other species. In addition to the complex historical, traditional, and economic threats to India’s owls today is a new one resulting from a mixture of the frenzy over the Harry Potter book and movie series and doting parents.

The study’s author Abrar Ahmed, an ornithologist, recalls being asked by a wealthy friend if he could procure a white owl for her son’s tenth birthday party.

Knowing my association with birds, she was quite confident that I would heed to her request. Perplexed, I asked if I was to provide the owl as a gift or whether it was required as some black magic ritual on her son’s birthday. She quickly clarified: "No the party theme is "Harry Potter' and we want to have ‘Hedwig’ – Harry’s pet owl. Please ask someone to capture and bring the owl to us. We can pay the cost.”

This launched Ahmed’s research into the “Hedwig” trade.

Author J.K. Rowling has said: “If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: please don't." One hopes she would be just as forceful in discouraging misguided parents who use snowy owls as party props.