UPDATE January 2021. Note from Living Bird editor Gus Axelson: In response to this story, Living Bird readers flooded my inbox with emails asking how to purchase cloth gamosas from the women working to help the Greater Adjutant stork (known as the “Hargila Army”). I forwarded every email to Dr. Purnima Barman, who was inspired by the outpouring of support to find an e-commerce solution for shipping products to North America. Here’s how international customers can buy handmade gamosas (and scarves and bags) from the Hargila Army:
put items in the shopping cart and select “checkout”
fill in shipping details and choose “offline payment mode”
a payment request will be emailed to you via PayPal to convert the transaction into Indian rupees
Congratulations, Living Bird readers, you made this happen. During the 2020 pandemic and global isolation, you reached across two oceans to show the Hargila Army women that the world cares.
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.”