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Sunday, January 28, 2001

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Exotic is the word, but not quite the bird

By Bindu Jacob

NEW DELHI, JAN. 27. The pair of exotic green munias or brown fish owl that you just bought off the pavement in the Walled City of Delhi may not be exotic after all. In all likelihood they are the more readily available, cheaper variety -- dyed, substituted and sold as ``exotic''.

Faced with a fast growing demand here for exotic foreign and indigenous birds, illegal bird-sellers are increasingly turning to cheaper variants. The bird market is flooded with common species dyed and passed off either as endangered indigenous species or imported exotic variety.

For instance, the demand for horned owl -- used extensively in black magic -- is met by the readily available spotted owl which is dyed with tea-leaf water and a few feathers stuck with latex on the head for false ``horns''. Similarly the hill myna, known for its ability to imitate the human voice, is another much sought after bird. The demand for this species is met with substitutes like the common, bank and jungle mynas.

The traders shave off the feathery portion above the myna's eyebrow and paint it red. A mixture of lamp-soot and mustard oil is used to colour the rest of the body and make it look like the hill myna! For added effect, a yellow balloon is cut and pieces of it are stuck near the temple to mimic the marking of the hill myna.

Likewise the female red munia, a more readily available variety, is dyed in light green and pale yellow colours and sold as green munia -- a rare species found only in India which often fetches ten times the price of the red munia. This ploy is also used to smuggle genuine green munia by mixing it with the dyed red birds.

The whitethroated munia is coloured by vegetable-based dye and offered as red munia. Canaries, buntings, weaver birds, soft bills and mynas are also duplicated and sold as exotic birds.

The profit margin in the trade runs high. A fake pair of green munias costs Rs.150 to 250 and a pair of juvenile hill mynas with elementary voice impersonation training fetch Rs.400 to 3,000.

Meanwhile, even as this illegal trade flourishes in the traditional Delhi markets of Jama Masjid, Sadar Bazar, Sultanpuri, Minto Road, Lajpat Nagar and Kaka Nagar, traders are busy spreading their network to new territories like Pusangipur, Jwalaheri and Rajouri Garden, making the city the largest retail market for such birds in North India.

``The traders' network is so widespread and the supply of these birds to the market so steady that despite the many restrictions and sporadic raids by officials, a total ban on the trade is virtually impossible,'' rues Mr. Abrar Ahmed of the World Wide Fund (WWF)-run TRAFFIC-India. ``Trade in the city not just thrives but flourishes, regardless of the blanket ban on trading in live birds imposed by Indian Government ten years ago.''

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