I have two eggs. Where do I get a buyer?
This is the most common question I am now asked about owls, indicating an abrupt shift from the perception of owls as birds of ill omen, to owls as a regional commodity. Prior to 2011, glimpsing or hearing an owl invoked fear in local residents in Kenya. Now it invokes greed.
As a senior official of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) told me recently, owl eggs have become the new quail eggs, referring to the nonsensical belief in miraculous healing properties of quail eggs, which resulted in a nationwide supply-and-demand frenzy and subsequent market crash.
Even though there are parallels to the quail egg craze, there are differences too, and the stakes are much higher, both for owls and for their unscrupulous traders. With owl eggs, an oversupply and subsequent market crash is unlikely as they are procured from wild populations, meaning their supply is naturally regulated. Most importantly, the trade in owl eggs is illegal.
You might be wondering what owl eggs are actually used for. Some might call it traditional medicine, but it’s as traditional as the liquid herbal concoction that made Mwasapile, the “miracle healer” of Loliondo, Tanzania, an overnight millionaire in 2011. Or the rumor that rhino horn powder cures cancer.
Exactly how owl eggs are used remains a mystery. Like quail eggs, owl eggs are touted as a cure for cancer and HIV/AIDS. Much of the demand for owl eggs comes from Tanzania, where being born albino comes with a significant risks. Middlemen plying rural Kenya to procure eggs are typically Tanzanians.
Price soars, hunt intensifies
The business opportunity represented by illicit trade in owl eggs is drawing new traders. seemingly too good to pass up, even for those struggling to join the trade. An owl egg in Kenya can fetch up to $3,796. This works out to about $89/gram. The cost of ivory in China in November 2015 was $1.10/gram and that of rhino horn in Vietnam in September of 2016 was $35/gram. Not surprisingly, the cost of eggs is increasing as the supply becomes scarce.
To help ensure the mystical properties of owl eggs are not lost along the supply chain, a rigorous process of collection is maintained. This involves sprinkling of flour (maize meal) prior to collection and handling eggs using only a black or white cloth. This may sound like a bit too much hocus pocus, but it is probably happening in a neighbourhood near you. Owls of all stripes and sizes are targeted. If you find a stranger clamouring up a tree, be suspicious. They are probably hunting for eggs or even young owls. Even inside protected areas, the hunt is on.
Even though harvesting is illegal, this makes little impact on those seeking to join the trade. When I posted a blog on this subject in October 2016, I received 27 comments. Ten were from people wishing to sell owls or their eggs.
Like other species whose parts are illegally traded, owl populations are collapsing. The population I studied during 2004-2007 have produced nary a chick in two years. The price of eggs alone, combined with local disdain for owls, virtually ensures this is one conservation crisis..
I have been asked why I publicize this issue when doing so will only result in more harm to owls. This is undeniably true in the immediate future, although it is hard to imagine any more growth in the ‘industry’. But trying to tackle a conservation crisis such as this one cannot be achieved when the total of those fighting to address the problem are less than five.
I am also asked, ‘Where is KWS in all of this?’ Whenever I have received a report of egg theft, or obtained contacts of traders that can be followed up, I pass these along to KWS. Unrelated to any of my reports to KWS, a local newspaper confirmed the arrest of two people in possession of owl eggs in Malindi in 2015. I implore KWS to confirm their activities in regards to this issue, as I am unable to confirm any further actions.