Meet the Indian Scientist Who Gave the Greater Adjutant Stork an Image Makeover

By Arundhati NathonAug. 06, 2020in Environment and Ecology

Photography By Gerrit Vyn

Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a gray top, Dr. Purnima Devi Barman carefully balances her feet as she clambers down from an 80-foot-tall bamboo platform.

She’s been scanning the treetops above the village of Dadara in northeastern India, looking for the giant stick nests of Greater Adjutants—huge storks named for their stiff-legged, almost military gait. These tall, majestic birds were once widely distributed in wetlands across India and Southeast Asia. Until decades ago, they were widely seen in the West Bengal capital city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and they were an iconic symbol. When the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was formed in the late 1800s, its emblem showcased two Greater Adjutants holding snakes in their beaks.

Today the corporation’s logo features a hand holding fire—a fine symbol of purity and high ideals, but the new logo is also recognition that the storks are gone from Kolkata.

Dr. Purnima Devi Barman is part of the Avifauna Research & Conservation Division at Aaranyak, a non-profit organization focused on biodiversity in northeast India. Barman is leading a conservation army of local women to revive the population of the endangered Greater Adjutant. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

Adjutant storks have a distinctive light orange sac or pouch, dangling from their necks, which turns deep orange and red during the breeding season. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

Historically the range of the Greater Adjutant covered India and Southeast Asia, but today the endangered storks are mostly found in the Indian state of Assam and in Cambodia. Map by Jillian Ditner. Greater Adjutant by Amol Marathe/Macaulay Library.

In India, the Greater Adjutant is now confined to the northeastern state of Assam, their last stronghold. Elsewhere, small populations persist in Cambodia’s northern plains. The species is endan­gered, one of the rarest storks in the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, only 800 to 1,200 adult Greater Adjutants remain, most of them in Assam.

Over the past century, these birds have been in steep decline. But in study­ing this species, Barman has noticed a change in the storks’ behavior. Greater Adjutants are now increasingly leaving the rural wetlands where they have historically nested and becoming village dwellers.

Through her tireless work with Aaranyak, Barman has empowered an army of local women to make another big change happen. Once scorned, the storks are now wel­comed and celebrated in the villages—and people who once destroyed Greater Adjutant nests now care for the birds like their own children.

Conservation leader Purnima Barman and members of her “hargila army” practice a song and dance for a Greater Adjutant celebration in the village of Dadara in Assam, India. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

“When I started research with these storks for my PhD program, I spotted very few storks compared to the large numbers I had seen as a child, growing up in rural Assam,” says Barman.

She started studying Greater Adju­tants in 2007 as a doctoral researcher at Gauhati University, monitoring nest success by watching the storks fly off on foraging runs and return to their platform nests in the treetops. In her research Barman noticed how Greater Adjutants are adapting to a quickly urbanizing landscape in Assam. As wetlands and forests are fast disappear­ing—replaced by buildings, roads, cell phone towers, and other manifestations of industrialization—the storks are being forced to look for nesting trees wherever trees can be found. As it turns out, that’s often next to the homes of villagers, where until recently the storks were often unwelcome.

Because they are natural scavengers, Greater Adjutants gather at landfills in Assam to forage for food. Purnima Barman has petitioned the local government to regulate the stream of trash going into the landfill, so that industrial pollutants, toxic substances, and plastics don’t get mixed in the garbage piles and consumed by the storks. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

Greater Adjutants can be smelly neighbors. They bring rotting flesh to their nests to feed hatchling storks, and they rain smelly droppings down on villagers’ gardens. People in the Assamese villages of Dadara and Pacharia, where the storks are most common, tended to see the huge birds as a bad omen, a plague. They were even willing to chop down magnificent old trees in their backyards to get rid of stork nests.

One day in 2007, Barman watched in horror as nine baby storks fell to the ground when a villager chopped down a nest tree. When she tried to stop the vil­lager, she was taken aback by his anger.

“I told him how important these scavenger birds are for our environ­ment, and about the fact that they are so endangered,” Barman recalls. “He retorted in anger, saying that he couldn’t keep these birds there just because I was doing my PhD. He ridiculed me and asked me to stay and work at his house as a cleaner to clean up the mess created by the birds.”

As other villagers gathered around her at the fallen nest tree, she asked for their help in taking the baby storks to a rescue center at a nearby zoo. Instead, the villagers started teasing and fright­ening the already-injured little birds. They laughed at Barman, ridiculing her and asking if she wanted to eat the baby birds on her way home. It was an inci­dent that could have discouraged her from enlisting locals in an effort to save the storks. But instead, Barman marks it as a turning point that led to a lot of good and necessary change.

Villagers and local police rescue young Greater Adjutant storks that fall out of their nests and transport them to the Assam State Zoo, where they are treated for their injuries, raised to fledgling age, and released back into the wild. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

“I realized that it wasn’t the people’s fault,” she says now. “They were com­pletely unaware about the ecological significance of the endangered stork.”

Barman recognized that in order to enlist residents in Greater Adjutant conservation, she first needed to make the stork a symbol of local pride. So she made a huge personal sacrifice, stepping away from her PhD studies to dedicate herself to shifting people’s attitudes.

Barman started by reaching out to several women in the villages, speaking to them about the importance of these birds and their dwindling population. She chose women as a first point of contact for her conservation outreach effort, because she felt the women in these villages don’t often get a chance to weigh in on social issues. And within their families, women can serve as the gatekeepers.

A big part of Barman’s conservation challenge was access to nests, with Greater Adjutants nesting atop trees on private land, in people’s yards. By striking up friendships with the local women, who were mostly homemakers, Barman figured she could gain permis­sion to enter their premises and work to save the storks. She organized activities such as cooking competitions to attract women to her meetings.

Hargila army members celebrate Greater Adjutants at a local festival. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

The meetings were a hit, and they gained a big following. Today Barman has organized a group of more than 400 local volunteers in what she calls the “hargila army.” (In Assamese, Greater Adjutants are called “hargila,” which literally translates as “bone swallower” because the storks sometimes swallow whole bones.) In turn, hargila army members call their leader Barman the hargila baideu, or stork sister.

The women of the hargila army received a quick education in the con­cept of the food chain in an ecosystem, and how Greater Adjutants regulate the number of smaller animals like rats and other pests. They also learned how the storks clean up the environment by eating decaying animal carcasses.

After some initial training, Barman quickly put the hargila women to work, helping to rehabilitate injured storks at the zoo and working in their commu­nities to boost awareness by sharing what they had learned about the stately storks that visit their villages.

One high-profile community event hosted by the hargila army is held during the storks’ breeding season, when the women conduct a panchamrit ceremony—the preparation of a sacred dessert that’s traditionally served to fete an expectant mother. In this case, it’s a baby shower for Greater Adjutants.

Panchamrit is a mix of five ingredi­ents: cow’s milk, yogurt, honey, sugar, and clarified butter. There are cele­brations, prayers, and merrymaking,” explains hargila army member Mamoni Malakar. “After the baby birds are born, a happy-hatching ceremony is also organized in the temples or community halls. A cake is cut, and the women discuss and spread awareness about the bird in the village. And there are prayers offered for the well-being of the birds.”

“These storks are our pride,” Malakar continues. “Earlier we considered them as dirty and associated them with garbage, but now we learnt … these storks help us clean our surroundings. I feel proud that we have been able to conserve them today.”

When the entire nation of India was placed into lockdown in spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, public festivals were canceled, but the hargila army still celebrated the storks by making Greater Adjutant face masks out of the gamosas. Photo by Dhiraj Das.

A stork motif is woven into traditional Assamese gamosas, cotton towels, made by members of the hargila army. Photo by Dhiraj Das.

Recently Barman and her hargila army gained a powerful new ally—the local government. The district administration and the police department in the villages began providing transport for the women and injured storks to the zoo rehab center, and they have joined in the effort to provide looms to the hargila women. Together, the hargila army and local government officials have started an effort to install nets below nest trees to catch any fallen baby storks and rescue them.

Whereas the locals laughed at and scorned Barman over a decade ago, now entire communities are rallying to save the storks—led by hundreds of women who are now local leaders in an honored conservation effort.

“Initially we thought that the hargila was a dirty bird because it ate dead fish and dirtied the backyards,” says Sangeeta Das, one of the original har­gila army members. “However, when [hargilabaideu explained to us about the importance of this bird, we realized how endangered this bird is and that we need to conserve it.

“Eventually it became a symbol of pride for us.”

As part of her community outreach, Purnima Barman goes into schools to educate children about the Greater Adjutants that nest in their village. “The children make a big difference,” Barman says. “They speak to their parents, they speak to their neighbors. And when they speak, then people listen because children are the future, they are very honest.” Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

The hargila army’s efforts are slowly beginning to bear fruit. Greater Adjutants are now celebrated in poems and songs during prayer meetings in the commu­nity prayer halls. Life-sized stork statues are now displayed along roads into the villages, and in the temple and school.

Even though Greater Adjutants still soil the villagers’ gardens with their smelly droppings, the locals do not complain anymore. An allegory of motherhood that Barman often told at hargila army meetings has taken root.

The population decline of the Greater Adjutant across its historic range is largely due to the felling of nest trees. But since Purnima Barman began her conservation work over a decade ago, no nest trees have been cut down in the villages of Dadara and Pacharia in Assam, and stork numbers have grown locally—from only 28 nests in 2007 to more than 200 nests today. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

“I have two daughters at my home,” Barman would say. “[When] they were very small, they also make mess in my home. But I don’t mind. I enjoy them because they are my daughters.

“So when hargila does it too, why we should mind? They also are our children.”

Today, Greater Adjutants are wel­come and regularly seen perched atop trees in Dadara and Pacharia. Back in 2007 when she conducted surveys for her PhD work, Barman counted only 28 stork nests. Today, she tallies more than 200 hargila nests in the villages.

And her interactions with the villag­ers are much different, because Greater Adjutants are no longer a bad omen.

“When I keep visiting the tree own­ers … not only women, the men … they keep sharing their stories. They keep telling me about [how] they woke up, and they saw hargila, and they felt it was a very great start to the day,” Barman says. “The whole scenario has changed now. People neglected the birds, cut down the trees. Now the same people, they are loving the bird. They have lots of love.

“One lady went to us sharing that hargila is like her children.”

For her efforts, Barman has received global accolades, including a prestigious Whitley Award bestowed by a British nonprofit environmental fund to the world’s most effective conservation leaders. She is also a recipient of the U.N. Development Programme’s India Biodiversity Award and the Nari Shakti Puraskar, India’s highest civilian honor for women.

“Purnima has given a completely new dimension to the conservation pro­cess by making the entire community interested and involved,” says Parimal Chandra Bhattacharjee, vice chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India.

However, Barman is not satisfied. She resumed and completed her PhD in 2018, and now she is starting a Hargila Natural Learning Centre in the village of Pacharia. She’s also been experimenting with artificial nest plat­forms for Greater Adjutants that are proving successful. This year she will increase the number of nest platforms in the villages, while also expanding her stork conservation efforts to the nearby districts of Morigaon and Nagaon, with plans to mobilize hargila armies there as well.

“Until my last breath, I’m committed to work on hargila,” Barman says. “It is just the beginning because we have just so many things to do.”

And yet, whenever she enters the villages, she can see what she’s already accomplished.

“Whenever I come to Dadara, I see to the sky and everywhere hargilas are there,” Barman says. “It’s a new day that I have started, and I have so many things to do. [But] whenever I see the bird, my God … I feel how lucky I am. How lucky for the people in the villages. How lucky Assam is to have hargilas with us.”

Arundhati Nath is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati, India. She has written for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Hindu, South China Morning Post, and BBC Wildlife. This story is adapted from a previous version that was published by The Christian Science Monitor.

Gerrit Vyn is a documentary producer, videographer, and photographer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media.

From the Summer 2020 issue of Living Bird magazine

Watch Hargila – a video film on this project by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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