Hunting and selling owls has been illegal in India since 1972, but a new report from the country's environment ministry says a thriving black market is endangering wild populations of the birds. And Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says J.K. Rowling's fictional wizard Harry Potter is partly to blame. What's really going on? Here, a brief guide:
How could this be Harry Potter's fault?
The covert owl trade is nothing new in India. Many of the illegally traded animals are used for black magic and ceremonial rituals surrounding Diwali, the annual five-day "Festival of Light," which has just begun. But Environment Minister Ramesh says the popularity of Harry Potter and his pet owl Hedwig are fueling a pet-owl craze that is speeding the birds' decline in the wild. "Following Harry Potter," he says, "there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls."
How did the researchers make the connection?
Harry Potter was a suspect from the start. In 2008, a wealthy friend asked the report's author, Abrar Ahmed, to bring a live white owl to her 10-year-old son's birthday celebration. The party had a "Harry Potter" theme, and the boy's mother wanted to have an owl there that looked like Harry's Hedwig, for atmosphere. "This was probably one of the strangest demands made to me as an ornithologist," Ahmed recalls. This was one of several incidents that convinced Ahmed he needed to investigate the owl trade.
Is Harry Potter a big part of the problem?
Ahmed doesn't know how many of India's thousands of annual owl purchases are made by Harry Potter fans. In fact, the periods included in the study — 1992 to 2000, and 2001 to 2008 — occurred before the "owl party" incident that prompted the investigation. But he says more people are interested in keeping owls as pets, and animal rescue group Wildlife SOS agrees. "Owls are commonly poached for black magic," says the organization's co-founder Kartick Satyanarayan. "But, yes, people have become curious after reading Harry Potter books, where mystical energy of owls has been shown."
So is it unfair to pin this on Potter?
"Indian officials aren't so much blaming Potter," says Adam Markovitz in Entertainment Weekly, "as they are pointing out a link between the books and the rising fad of owl pets in their country." And Rowling and her fictional brood should be used to the heat — the wild popularity of the Potter books and movies has made them an easy target for all kinds of criticism, deserved or not. In 2003, a Washington pediatrician said he was seeing "Hogwarts headaches" in patients who were spending six or eight hours a day reading Rowling's Harry Potter books. In 2009, The New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope worried about how alcohol's "starring role" in the latest Potter film might affect fans. "This is hardly the first time Harry's had a finger wagged at him," says Markovitz.