The Greater Adjutant is a stork. It has long spindly legs, a strange pouch hanging from its neck, gorgeous blue eyes, an orange-yellow neck and bill. There are no feathers on its head; instead only a few black hairs. It has large black and white wings when an adult with a white underneath.
The General Adjutant is one of the rarest and most endangered birds in the world. Standing as tall as a 1.5 metre person (or 5 feet) the birds survive on whatever food is available – fresh fish, scraps, and carrion. They are often seen foraging in the landfills alongside people trying to find items of value to sell. In the 19th century, the bird was found all across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In Calcutta, its image adorned many of the colonial public buildings because it was a respected cultural symbol. The loss of habitat in the twentieth century brought the numbers into decline. Of the 800-1200 Greater Adjutants known to exist, the majority live in one province of India, Assam. Assam is in the Northeast of India.
For the general population of Assam, the birds are called hargilas or ‘bone pickers.’ Few considered them beautiful. Instead, ordinary Assam citizens were repulsed by the birds because they often have to survive on carrion (the dead). As a result, people cut down the trees that contained their nests not recognizing that the storks were vital to cleaning up the environment.
A woman, Purnima Devi Barman, was conducting research on the Adjutant Stork for her PhD at Gauhati University in Assam. She is a conservation biologist. She knew the value of the storks to the eco system and set about to teach the people of Assam to respect the birds, to love them, and, most of all, to protect them. She put her PhD on hold while she worked on her project. Barman decided to start in Kamrup where the majority of General Adjutant nests existed. Barman believed that if she could create a sense of pride in the rare birds she could save them.
Barman worked tirelessly. She gathered up an army of women to help her. They became known as the Hargila Army. They created puppet shows, cooking and baking contests, songs, dances, and drawing contests to help instil in the minds of the people the value of the stork. Women began to sew images of the bird on cotton bags, then on their clothing, and, as a real tribute to the change in attitude, they created henna designs for their hands and arms, especially for weddings. There are modules on the conservation of the General Adjutant in the schools in addition to ecology and the environment. Special awareness workshops are held that focus on every level of society and the role they can play in preserving this important bird. Today, the number of nests has grown from 27 to more than 210 in just thirteen years. Where the habitat is lost, there are now artificial platforms being built for the storks. Barman continues to work with her Hargila Army. She believes that social change and the empowerment of women rather than laws are the best model for conservation.
To further encourage continued protection of the birds and their nests, a scholarship program for the children of people who own General Adjutant trees with nests has been established for those wanting to work on the conservation of the General Adjutant. There are also certificates for those protecting nests. The entire community has become involved working with the Hargila Army of Women. A Hargila Learning Centre, a museum, and more rewards – large and small – are planned for the future. As hoped for, the Hargila has become a symbol of pride for the people. At the same time it has empowered a group of women who were otherwise invisible within their communities. Now, other conservation biologists are looking to Barman’s model to help the elephant and the tiger.
If you look at the image of the bird above, it is beautiful. Look at its beautiful plumage and those amazing ice blue eyes.
Thank you for joining me today. I hope that you have been inspired by Barman and her Army of the Hargila. It takes one clear idea, a determined individual, and a supporting group but what seems hopeless at first can become a glowing reality.