Peacocks

The bird with a hundred eyes is the beautiful peacock with an eye-like pattern seen on its quivering fanned out plumage! The Indian blue peacock called mayura in Sanskrit is the spectacular one with its pretty shimmering train of jewel-like coloured feathers. In comparison, the peahen is a mottled brown coloured fowl. Peafowl are found all over the country except in very wet or dry regions.

Most cultures revere peacocks and their feathers have been used down the ages with different religious connotations and uses by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Digamber Jains, Muslims and Christians. They are considered symbols of beauty, purity and integrity because they reveal myriad or true colours; and, immortality and fertility because peacocks re-grow their feathers.


However, there is also a global superstiti
on that it is unlucky to keep peacocks and their feathers because the eye of the feather is associated with the evil eye of wickedness. Also, some Indians do not use feathers of any birds because they consider them to be unlucky. True, their use certainly results in bad luck for the poor birds whose plumage has been utilised.


Nevertheless, in India peacock feathers adorn people, products and places. Loose feather eyed sticks, fans and decorative items are sold in shops and hawked on sidewalks, and some how the supply fulfils the demand. Foreigners also get attracted to peacock feathers and articles made from them although it is illegal to take them out of the country.


Protected…

The peacock is India’s national bird since 1963 and enjoys protected status under Schedule I of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The killing a peacock is strictly prohibited and as per section 51(1-A) attracts imprisonment which may extend to seven years and also a fine which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees. Despite this, in Delhi alone about 10 injured peacocks are brought to the Jain bird hospital for treatment every month and after they die a post-mortem is to be carried out by the Forest Department to ascertain the cause of death. Also there are stories of umpteen deaths and lesser numbers of the specie is seen in places where they were in abundance earlier.


In Hinduism, the peacock is associated with Saraswati, the deity representing benevolence, patience, kindness, compassion and knowledge. As the magnificent peacock is part of Hindu mythology, there was a time when no one dared harm the hundreds of peafowl found in particular villages which were named after them, but the situation has changed due to intentional and non-intentional poaching.

Also, nowadays they are not found in prisons compounds where they were supposedly meant to assist as guards! And, the white peacocks (referred to as albino) seen in the Raj Bhavans at Chennai and Chandigarh are a different peafowl specie, mainly native of Sri Lanka.


In 2008 the Forest Department seized 14 peacocks illegally kept at the ISKCON temple in Mayapur (100 kms from Kolkata) but unfortunately all died before they could even be moved out of the temple. Incidentally, since peacock feathers are associated with Lord Krishna, just before Janmasthtami, the demand for loose feathers increases.


The 15 acre temple garden preserved in its natural form at Tiruparankundram, Madurai, has hundreds of peacocks and is home to some monkeys, mongooses and snakes. This is the reason why it may be declared a community reserve by the state government.

Shockingly, despite the peacock being our national bird, in 2016 the state government of Goa wanted the wildlife board to declare it and the wild bison or gaur as vermin and allow them to be hunted because they were “nuisance animals” for farmers. However in February 2016 the possibility of adding them to the list of vermin was categorically ruled out by Goa’s Minister for Environment & Forests.

In 2019 in order to scare peafowl from destroying his farm in Sankalakariya in Karkalu taluk, Udupi district in Karnataka, a farmer installed a mannequin wearing a shirt and trousers as a scarecrow and it worked in keeping them away. Earlier he has mounted a banner with the photograph of a ferocious tiger which had succeeded in scaring away monkeys from destroying crops on his farm.


…but Exploited

The male bird’s regal beauty and courtship dance at the onset of the monsoon is unfortunately its own downfall because it fuels the desire in humans to own its feathers and knickknacks and trinkets made from them. In China 2009 peacock feathers were used to make a wedding dress with a huge fanned out circular bridal train. Wedding celebrations featuring peacock themes were particularly popular in Delhi during 2011 when thousands of peacock feathers were woven into table cloths.

Then in 2013 Burberry (an English luxury fashion brand) came out with £22,000 trench coats made from golden peacock feathers. They initially claimed the feathers came from a farm in India – but we know India does not farm peacocks! It so turned out that the feathers were from a farm in China, exported to a dealer in New York who exported them to India where they were sewed onto a fabric and exported to Italy from where the coats were finished and sent to London. In addition to these coats being offered for sale on the Burberry website, an order could be placed at the Burberry store in Hyderabad.

Long and short stalk peacock tail feathers called spears or sticks with moons (eye pattern) are used for home décor, displayed in vases as part of floral arrangements and bouquets. Swords and butterfly feathers (those minus eyes) are used along with feathers with moons for making brooms/zhadu, fans/mayur pankh, handicraft items like framed art-work and book-marks, clutches, headbands, etc. The short plumage from the breast and belly is usually added to feathers with moons for making jewellery such as ear rings and necklaces, is used as fringes on attire and as trimming on hats. Peacock herl or flue (side fibres of eyed feathers, usually bleached, burnt & dyed) is one of the most used materials for fly-tying by fishers. The crest or corona and peacock quills (speckled and iridescent blue wing feathers) are also popular. Peacock feathers are said to be indispensable in Mayur Chandrika Ayurveda medicine, Pavo cristatus Homeopathic medicine and witchcraft – peacock heads are clandestinely used as charms and talismans. The Narikurava gypsy tribe of Tamil Nadu poach peacocks for their oil considered an aphrodisiac, and for use as an ingredient in many Siddha preparations. Peafowl carcasses are also bought and legs dried by Siddha physicians. Hot sesame oil is added to the powdered legs and administered for joint and bone pain. Believe it or not, they display peacock carcasses to prove the oil is genuine.


A 2016 study undertaken by TRAFFIC India states “Bhasma and churnam (peacock feather ash) were sold in many Siddha drug stores in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is used to cure hiccups, vomiting and morning sickness among other illnesses. The Rebari community in Rajasthan use ash of peafowl feather mixed with honey to cure asthma, whereas ash of peafowl feathers mixed with coconut oil is used for headache. One bolus with cow milk daily early in the morning is given for five days to get male child.” The report also points out that legs and fat of peafowl are fairly popular; and goes on to say 200 peacocks were killed in the Bundi district of Rajasthan in 2016. Poaching of peacocks is the most in this area of India.


As the demand for peacock plumes grows, naturally shed long tail eyed feathers are simply not enough and peacocks are increasingly killed – a single peacock normally sheds or moults 150-200 feathers annually. It is unlikely that people catch wild peacocks, pull out their feathers and let them go. Moreover, the young ones who do not shed for months till the next breeding season.


A single peacock’s feathers all together weigh about 300 grams so when 29.8 kgs of feathers valued at Rs 2.60 lakh in India (but said to fetch Rs 7.3 lakh abroad) were seized from a passenger travelling to Singapore by the Customs at Kochi in September 2014, one wonders whether they were shed or plucked from around 100 killed peacocks.

This clearly indicates that there is no guarantee that the picchi made from peacock feathers used by Jain monks are naturally shed feathers as believed.

Mercury based pesticides sprayed on seeds and crops (particularly by tomato growers) consumed by peacocks have resulted in their deaths. Initially termed “mysterious” and gone on to be called “accidental” one wonders how many are actually killed. Finding scores of dead peafowl in different parts of India is becoming a frequent occurrence followed by government inquires into the deaths. For example, a farmer who sprayed pesticide on his cotton crop near the Pakidi Reserve Forest in Ganjam district of Odisha, was said to be responsible for peacock deaths (they had consumed cotton flowers from his field) in October 2011. Peacocks living in this habitat are also threatened by stone blasters and pollution.


In July 2012 three persons were arrested in Gurdahi village in Sikandara area of Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh for killing a peacock. They admitted that their gang were in the business of selling peacock feathers for several years. Initially they collected shed ones but when there was a seasonal lull in moulting they trapped and killed birds in order to meet the demand for peacock feathers. They also sold peacock fat used for treating arthritis.

Around the same time six peacocks had supposedly dropped dead at Bhuganiyapur village in Dehat district. On the same day two poachers were arrested by the Etawah police in Usrahar for killing 4 peacocks. They too said they had been killing peacocks to meet the demand for feathers. (The plucked carcasses obviously bring in an additional income.)


The Forest Departments have also caught people who have poached them for their “novelty” meat of
about one and half kilogram per bird. Rajasthani tribes like the Mongiya, Kangar and Bheel eat peacock meat because they believe it makes them energetic and powerful.

 

In Rajasthan, peacocks are usually shot dead by poachers for their meat, feathers and for the oil that is extracted from their carcases. But to protect their fields, farmers kill them with poisonous grain. In August 2019 as many as 47 peacocks were poisoned to death near a lake at Madurantakam in Madhurai district. Feathers from their bodies had been removed.


The Bankapura Peacock Conservation Reserve near Dharwad and the Mayura Sanctuary in Adichunchanagiri, both in Karnataka, need to remain on constant high alert to protect peacock eggs from being stolen by poachers. In September 2007 as many as 12 peacocks and a couple of sandalwood trees were stolen from the Katraj Zoo in Pune. Whereas Maharashtra’s lone peacock sanctuary at Naigaon in Beed district which covers nearly 30 sq kms, in 2016 claimed to have 4,500 peacocks, but not a single visitor!

 

In February 2020 BWC got to know that since September 2019 the Maharashtra Forest Department had collected about 100 so-called abandoned peafowl eggs from their natural habitats and given them to private poultry farms in places like Saswad and Purandar for a month to incubate and hatch by chickens and other domestic birds. The hatched peafowl chicks had then been released in the wild. BWC was sceptical about whether they were all released because poultry farms could have begun selling peacock eggs and meat clandestinely, especially since they surprisingly did not charge for hatching the eggs. BWC wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (Government of India) that this bizarre project needed to be stopped immediately since it was illegal to breed wildlife in this manner at poultry farms. We pointed out that from the wildlife point of view the hatched peafowl chicks could pick up diseases from the poultry farms which could very well get transferred by them when released into the wild to peacocks and other birds in the forest. In fact the project was totally flawed and questionable from the animal rights point of view too because peafowl should be hatching their own eggs and they should not be hatched in captivity by chickens.

In March 2014, villagers of Katpon in Sehore district (not far from Bhopal) were violently angry
when they caught three men on a hunting spree. Police seized a skinned peacock and killed black buck in their vehicle along with 3 expensive foreign-made rifles and 59 cartridges.


Heat waves and scarcity of water claim the lives of hundreds of peacocks. (This despite Forest Departments installing hundreds of water tanks especially in drought-prone areas, but they are rarely filled in summer.) Unfortunately, such “natural” deaths have been taken advantage of by people who have stolen the bird-carcasses prior to the Forest Department reaching the villages where they had dropped dead.

Peacock traps have been discovered in Maharashtra’s Bhamburda Sanctuary. They consisted of fine nylon strings and sacks which were sprinkled with grain to attract the peacocks, entangling their feet. No wonder, decorative peacock feather items are sold at jatras like at Karla, near Lonavla.

Also, upon inquiring it was revealed by the men selling hand-held type of peacock feather fans on the roadside in Pune that a group of them came with stocks from Agra and would fetch more fans and feathers after their current stocks got over. Similar peacock feather fans sold by persons also claiming to be from Agra were seized in 2012 at Chennai by forest department officials. However, as the stems of the feathers had been chopped off, they could not even try to ascertain if the feathers were naturally shed or derived from killed birds.


In September 2019 a Hong-Kong-bound passenger was apprehended with 3 bags containing 49 kgs of peacock feathers (at least 160 peacocks’ feathers – each bird’s feathers weigh around 300 grams – but are not shed at one time) at the IGI Airport, Delhi. Earlier in March 2019, 18 kgs of peacock feathers to be smuggled to Malaysia and Singapore were seized at Chennai airport.

Peacocks eat grain, berries, flowers, seeds, seedlings, tender shoots, as well as insects, lizards, frogs and snakes. And, every one in Delhi is aware of how much they enjoy peanuts – in fact it is said that peacocks living in the capital know that they are the national bird! The peacock is also the state bird of Punjab although Rajasthan has the highest number of peacocks. Sadly, the highest numbers poached are also from this state where every year 300 or so, are killed by tribes for meat. They are killed for their feathers too.

In December 2014 for the first time peafowl legs were being sold in Madurai district. The forest officials who detained the persons also found porcupine quills.


Inadequate Ban
For decades Beauty Without Cruelty has been requesting the government to always incinerate, never bury or dispose off carcasses so there is no chance of any one utilizing the animals’ parts in any way; if carcasses were to be auctioned, it would also be a counter-measure as in this case the feathers would be used to make fancy items which are already in demand.

Although peacocks are protected under the wildlife laws and export of their tail feathers and articles made from them continues to be banned by India and also under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the gathering and selling (within the country) of claimed to be naturally shed peacock feathers, is not illegal. According to a 2008 study by Traffic India around 20 million peacock tail feathers are traded in annually and an entire community at Agra is involved in this trade.

The government needs to realize that moulted peacock feathers and those which have been plucked out of a killed peacock look alike. But if crest feathers have been utilised, the peacock has positively been killed. Illegal trapping and killing is easy and lucrative with the added advantage of it not being illegal to sell peacock feathers and articles and trophies made from them. Poachers use bright lights to attract them on their path and catch them quickly as they can hardly fly.

In February 2020 two men were caught by the Karnataka Forest Department for selling peacock feathers in Vidyaranyapura. However they were released under section 44 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 although they need not have been released. In view of the large quantities of feathers involved they could have been easily booked under section 57 which states it can be presumed that the person is in unlawful possession until proven otherwise in court.

Also in February 2020 there was another news item that stated peacocks were being poached (more so during monsoon) in Sundargarh Forest of Odisha but the department was not taking adequate steps to curb it. Loose feather eyed sticks, fans and decorative items were sold in shops and hawked on sidewalks. Also the meat of baby peacocks was sold for Rs 300 to 350 per kg, and of adult peacocks for Rs 1000 to 2000.

For positive results, there has to be consistency in ruling. So again in 2010 Beauty Without Cruelty approached the Government of India to entirely ban the gathering, sale and use of peacock feathers. Initially in response to BWC’s request, the Ministry of Environment & Forests was in the process of banning the trade because it was brought to the ministry’s attention that demand for the feathers outstripped their supply, leading to rampant poaching of peacocks. They said amendments to Sections 43(3)(a) and 44 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 would no longer exempt those possessing a certificate of ownership for peacocks from transferring or selling their tail feathers, nor articles or trophies made from them. In fact a comprehensive ban on the sale, transfer and trade of peacock feathers was expected to be imposed expect for religious use.

Soon after BWC got to know that the expected ban on trade in peacock feathers would not come to pass because the Ministry of Environment & Forests sought comments from the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. They objected to the ban. Traffic India and the Bombay Natural History Society were also against the ban. Only BWC seems to have been in favour of the ban and feels that, at least, the dancers at the Commonwealth Games 2010 opening ceremony should not have adorned themselves with hundreds of peacock feathers. India’s dancers use real peacock feathers for performing the “peacock dance” but imitating the peacock never turns out good.


Since the poaching of peacocks to meet the demand for feathers was on the rise, in 2014 the Ministry of Environment & Forests reiterated that the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, provided exemptions under Sections 43, 44(4) and 49(a) for transport, transfer and trade in peacock tail feathers for religious, cultural and traditional purposes within India. Although traders were exempted from declaring stocks of peacock feathers, they were not exempted from revealing the origin of the feathers because the bird was listed under Schedule I and killing peacocks or plucking their feathers was illegal and attracted appropriate punishment. If traces of blood were found on the base of the shaft of the feathers, it indicated that they were not naturally shed but plucked from the birds. But, BWC knows that feathers be easily cleaned of all traces of blood and wonders how one checks the majority of feathers whose shafts have been chopped off. A letter to this effect adding that our national bird should be treated exactly like all other animals listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 was sent by BWC to the Inspector General of Forests WL, urging to seriously reconsider imposing an immediate ban on trade. Any way, the Memorandum for Protection of the National Bird dated 7 May 2014 can be read here. It has at least succeeded in drawing the attention of all the forest officials and has made them aware of their duty to act against the exploitation. They have also been asked to give wide publicity to the fact that hunting peacocks is illegal.

In March 2015, BWC wrote to the Prime Minister, as well as to the Minister of State for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, stating that the government should seriously reconsider imposing an immediate ban on trade of their feathers and protect the national bird just like it protects the tiger, India’s national animal, and all others that are listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Nothing happened. In fact, by 2016 bunches of loose peacock feathers were being openly taken out of the country by air passengers from Chennai as part of their personal baggage. BWC therefore drew the attention of the Ministry’s Secretary and requested that a circular be sent to the authorities listing prohibited wildlife products. A positive response was received from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau who said that their southern region office had been directed “to specifically take up this input at sensitization program conducted at the airports within their jurisdiction”.

Page last updated on 27/04/20