Hyderabad, India - Endangered species remain on sale in one of the oldest bird markets in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad in defiance of a crackdown by wildlife officials.
Traders at the Murgi Chowk market are still openly selling protected owls and kestrels despite a high-profile raid by India's forest department officials last year in which hundreds of birds were rescued.
Bird lovers say conditions are inhumane at the famous market. Murgo Chowk is packed with old buildings and dilapidated shops stuffed with cages; noise and air pollution generated by passing traffic are severe - and wildlife advocates want it closed down.
"A lot of animals that are prohibited are being sold in the market, violating all the norms of India's Wildlife Protection Act," said Mahesh Agarwal, who runs the Sahayog Organisation, an animal welfare organisation.
"Action should be taken against traders and the market should be closed."
People believe that flying a crow solves their problems, especially those pertaining to health or monetary issues. It is considered a charitable or good act.
Located in the shadow of the city's celebrated Charminar monument and mosque, Murgi Chowk is also near the world famous Laad Bazaar where women flock to buy bangles.
Customers come to the market in droves to buy birds for 100 rupees ($1.60) from one of the traders - then immediately release them to fly away, in the hopes that freeing a captured animal may bring them good fortune.
According to an old tradition in Hyderabad tracing back to the rule of the Nizam monarchy (from the 18th to early 20th centuries), releasing a crow, owl, or sparrow is believed to bring luck and ward off evil.
Murgi Chowk - which literally means "chicken corner" - is also known as Mahboob Chowk after one of the Nizams, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, who ruled Hyderabad state from 1866 to 1911.
Parrots, crows, pigeons, owls, and even peacocks, are among a variety of birds on sale. Shops also sell snakes, frogs, and wild hares.
Traders at Murgi Chowk compete to lure potential customers from the street, calling out to passers-by to purchase birds from their shops.
The bustling market is so filled with the sound of chirping that visitors could be forgiven for thinking they are in a forest surrounded by trees and not in the heart of a busy city.
Good luck charms
The price of a bird rises with demand, but on average they are sold between 100 rupees ($1.60) and 500 rupees ($8.32).
Crows are in high demand and dozens are on sale, having usually been supplied to the market by local villagers who catch them with nets then sell them to traders at a low price.
|At Murgi Chowk, parrots, crows, pigeons and owls are among a variety of birds on sale [MAR Fareed / Al Jazeera]
Lal Mohammad, 55, has been involved in the bird trade for over 30 years and says that many people come to the market every day.
"People believe that flying a crow solves their problems, especially those pertaining to health or monetary issues," said Mohammad.
"It is considered a charitable or good act."
Mohammad says people from all religions throng the market on auspicious occasions, such as religious festivals and weekends.
Particularly common visitors include people with health issues or those suffering from financial or work-related problems, he said.
"They do it on the advice of people who practise some kind of a black magic. Crows are most popular followed by owls and sparrows."
However, the market has become a controversial attraction since last year's raid highlighted how traders are flouting wildlife laws.
U Koteshwar Rao, an officer in Hyderabad's forest department, explained that officials continue to raid the market from time to time.
"If any bird listed in the Wildlife Protection Act of India 1974 is sold in the market, we confiscate it immediately," he said.
"Hundreds of birds were rescued last year."
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Now nervous about finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, traders have grown wary of journalists taking photographs and promptly ask them not to picture birds on sale.
"No photos please - we don't want anyone to take pictures," shouts an angry bird-seller.
Another says, "You can take the photos of lovebirds but not of other birds."
But the animal welfare activist, Mahesh Agarwal, says at least 100 species of birds and other animals continue to be kept in the market, from frogs to peacocks.
"There is a regular inflow of animals. The government is unable to stop this."
Agarwal said that although the practice of releasing birds might be traditional, it should not deter officials from taking action against traders who break the law.
It (releasing an owl) brings me good luck and all the things I do then go smoothly - I never suffer losses in my business.
Not everyone comes to release captive birds; many customers visit Murgi Chowk to buy birds as pets that they can keep at home, particularly parrots.
For customers in search of good fortune, however, the market remains an important destination.
Real estate broker Mohammed Anwar says he releases an owl whenever he finalises a deal, like buying land or reselling a flat.
"It brings me good luck and all the things I do then go smoothly - I never suffer losses in my business," Anwar said.
But it would appear that the bird's legendary capacity to deal out good luck may not be all it seems - and that some traders are loading the deck.
One customer said that some sellers are up to dirty tricks, like clipping the wings of a bird so that it does not fly far away.
"When a person releases a bird, traders go and fetch it after it has landed on a nearby rooftop or a tree," he said. "Then they resell the same bird to another customer."