Wildlife activist Purnima Barman receives the Whitley Award from Princess Anne in London on Thursday evening. (HT Photo)
A woman from Assam has received the coveted Whitley Award, also known as the Green Oscar, for her efforts towards protecting the greater adjutant stork (leptoptilos dubius) and the wetlands it inhabits.
Princess Anne presented the award, worth £35,000 in project funding, to 37-year-old Purnima Barman at London’s Royal Geographical Society on Thursday evening.
A statement issued by Whitley Fund for Nature on Wednesday said Barman was selected for the prestigious award from a list of 166 researchers across 66 countries.
Another Indian – Sanjay Gubbi – also figured among the six picked for the honour. He received the award for his efforts at curbing deforestation in Karnataka’s tiger corridors.
Incidentally, hargila – as the greater adjutant is called in Assam – is also used to refer to lanky people in local parlance. It currently holds the unenviable ‘endangered’ status in the IUCN red list of threatened species.
“Purnima mobilised the Hargila Army, an all-female team of conservationists dedicated to protecting the greater adjutant stork. They are offered sustainable livelihood, training and education opportunities through this programme. The project is giving marginalised women a voice, helping them change local perceptions. The number of stork nests has risen to over 150 from just 30 seven years ago,” the Whitley statement said.
Barman will use the award to scale up her work, encouraging householders to protect the birds and their nesting trees, the statement said. “She will conduct research on the impact of pollution and garbage consumption on the stork’s reproduction, and undertake work to secure legal protection of its wetland habitat – which is home to the largest nesting colony of greater adjutants,” it added.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Assam has about 800 of the world’s estimated population of 1,800 greater adjutants. Bihar has around 160 of these storks.
Barman, a member of Assam-based NGO Aaranyak, had faced several challenges when she launched her campaign at three villages near Guwahati in 2008. Today, the people of Dadara, Pachariya and Hingimari take pride in preserving the hargila as well as its nesting trees – which they once wanted to chop off to get rid of the “irritating birds”.
The conservation efforts are monitored by the Hargila Army, which observes February 2 as Greater Adjutant Day to spread the good word. The conservationists’ attempts to embed the bird into the local culture have also succeeded, with the hargila finding its way into local handloom products as a popular motif as well as hymns sung at namghars (Vaishnav prayer halls) in the region.
“I dedicate the Whitley Award, the dream of every conservationist, to the villagers who have been working with me to make the world a better place for the greater adjutant. A 19th century ornithologist called the bird a prodigy of ugliness, but few are as beautiful as it is,” Purnima said in an email after receiving the award.
The United Kingdom-based Whitley Fund for Nature gives away monetary awards annually to support pioneers in national and regional wildlife conservation across the globe. Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, serves as a patron of over 200 social and animal welfare organisations across the globe.
First published by Hindustan Times