The Harry Potter phenomenon has broken publishing and cinema box-office records and spawned a series of lucrative theme parks. But wildlife experts are sounding the alarm over a sad downside to JK Rowling’s tales of the troubled young wizard. The illegal trade in owls has jumped in the far east over the past decade and researchers fear it could endanger the survival of these distinctive predators in Asia.
Conservationists say the snowy owl Hedwig – who remains the young wizard’s loyal companion for most of the Harry Potter series – is fuelling global demand for wild-caught birds for use as pets. In 2001, the year in which the first film was released, only a few hundred were sold at Indonesia’s many bird markets. By 2016, the figure had soared to more than 13,000, according to researchers Vincent Nijman and Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University in a paper in Global Ecology and Conservation. At around $10 to $30, the price tag is affordable to most middle-class families.
The issue is of critical concern because the owls being offered for sale are nearly all taken from the wild. “The overall popularity of owls as pets in Indonesia has risen to such an extent that it may imperil the conservation of some of the less abundant species,” Nijman and Nekaris say.
As a result, they urge that owls should be added to Indonesia’s list of protected bird species, pointing out that owls may look cute on display in the market but generally die quickly after being removed from the wild.
Indonesia is not alone. Several other countries have in the past noted increases in sales of owls, which they have also blamed on the popularity of Harry Potter books and films.
The Indian MP Jairam Ramesh has blamed fans of the boy wizard for their role in the dwindling of numbers of wild owls in the country. “Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls,” he noted.