Saving the greater adjutant stork from extinction

Print edition : January 28, 2022

The greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius). Photo: Biswajit Roy Chowdhury

A muster of adjutant storks perched in a tree in Dadara village, Assam. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

The landfill area of Badagaon in Guwahati has the highest density of adjutant storks in Assam. Photo: M.V. Ajith Kumar

Greater adjutant storks, which are natural scavengers, gather at landfills in Assam to forage for food. Photo: M.V Ajith Kumar

The greater adjutant stork forages for fish. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

Purnima Devi Barman with a stork chick rescued at Dadara village on February 4, 2017. Photo: Biju Boro/ AFP

A meeting of the Hargila army in progress in Guwahati, on February 4, 2017. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

The Hargila army regularly conducts awareness programmes. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

A biodiversity class conducted by the Hargila army for the local community of women. Photo: Chandan Bora

Community dance programmes are organised by the Hargila army to involve and empower the women in the Dadara village, Assam.

Arvind Mishra along with volunteers of the Mandar Nature Club, Bhagalpur.

Volunteers of the Mandar Nature Club, Bhagalpur. Photo: Arvind Mishra

Motifs of the greater adjutant stork on handloom sarees, an initiative of the Hargila army. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

Motifs of the greater adjutant stork on cloth bags, an initiative of the Hargila army. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

Schoolchildren in Dadara are sensitised through awareness programmes about the greater adjutant storks that nest in their village.

Schoolchildren observe a statue of the greater adjutant stork in the local school in Dadara. Photo: Purnima Devi Burman

The Hargila Learning and Conservation Centre, inaugurated at the Pacharia Kushal Konwar High School, Pacharia, Assam, on March 24, 2021.

Purnima Devi Burman receives the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the President of India in 2017.

Purnima Devi Burman received the Whitley Award, considered “the green Oscar”, from the Whitley Fund for Nature, U.K., in 2017. Photo: James Finlay

Once loathed as a social menace and a bird of ill omen, the greater adjutant stork has changed the fortunes of a few villages in Assam and Bihar, thanks to the efforts of two wildlife biologists who have educated the locals about this endangered species and the need to conserve them.

Five feet tall, stiff-legged and bald-headed with a massive bill, the greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius) is an endangered bird. However, the people of a few villages in Assam and Bihar have ensured its survival by protecting its habitat, thanks to a grassroots movement which also marks an epoch in the avifaunal history of India.

Wildlife biologists Purnima Devi Burman in Guwahati and Arvind Mishra in Bhagalpur successfully spearheaded a campaign to change the public’s mindset about the adjutant stork. Purnima recalled: “Only a few years back, villagers despised the greater adjutant stork as a bad omen and a social menace, and even cut down the trees in which it nested. Their kids were frightened of it. But now it is a bird of hope with a halo around its head.”

Arvind Mishra said: “Now the bird makes the villages prosper. The villagers worship it as a deity, chanting mantras and offering floral tributes. Earlier, the villages were neither properly electrified nor well connected by road, although they were less than 30 kilometres from Bhagalpur. But now wildlife enthusiasts, scientists, social activists and others undertake trips to the habitats of the birds in these villages as if these were pilgrimage sites. As a result, the area has developed rapidly.”

The greater adjutant stork, once commonly found in northern and north-eastern India, is now confined to certain pockets of Assam and Bihar. There is a small breeding population in Cambodia. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global population of these birds is estimated to be only about 1,200.

The greater adjutant stork is also a scavenger. Often, the garbage and animal carcasses it carries to its nest drop to the ground below and on rooftops and wells, provoking the villagers to chase it away by pelting stones and sticks and felling the trees in which it nests.

Dr Salim Ali, the “birdman of India”, described the greater adjutant stork in The Book of Indian Birds as a “large sad coloured black, grey and dirty European white stork with an enormous yellow wedge-shaped bill and naked head and neck.” He added: “The long naked ruddy pouch pendant from the chest is diagnostic. It has a close relation with the African bird marabou. The adjutant stork is so called from the measured martial gait as it paces up and down. (Adjutant is a military officer.) It is an efficient scavenger, often consorting with kites and vultures to feed on carcass and garbage. It also eats fish, reptiles, etc.”

Salim Ali also refers to a popular belief recorded by the Mughal emperor Babur in his memoirs, that if you split the head of an adjutant stork, you will find the fabulous zahar-mohra (snake stone), which is believed to be a potent antidote against snake venom and all other kinds of poison.

Purnima Devi Burman and Arvind Mishra had to face the wrath of villagers for many years when they tried to spread the message of protection and conservation of the greater adjutant stork. When they told the villagers about its ecological importance, the villagers protested, saying that the bird, with its repulsive appearance and grunting voice, had become a nuisance. However, they continued tirelessly with their campaign, gained the support of like-minded people and organisations, and succeeded in changing the mindset of the villagers.

The greater adjutant stork is called Hargila (literally, “bone swallower”) in Assam and Garuda in Bihar.

Hargila army

Purnima Devi Burman formed the Hargila army of women to champion the cause of the bird in 2009. It all began in 2007, when she saw nesting trees being axed in a village in Kamrup district, Assam. While she was able to rescue and nurse nine stork chicks that had fallen to the ground, Purnima Devi Burman faced stiff resistance from the villagers who insisted that trees had to be felled because the stork “dirtied” the surroundings. Although she withdrew at that time, Purnima Devi Burman was determined to go ahead with her campaign.

Eventually, the income-generating opportunities provided by the Hargila army proved to be a turning point. Purnima Devi Burman told this writer: “The Hargila army was able to enhance the livelihoods of women. I procured looms for them and they got engaged in manufacturing garments, sarees and towels with Hargila motifs. People liked it. Gradually, the women were able to earn a regular income. During the recent pandemic, they made thousands of face masks, which sold fast.”

She said that around 400 women are employed in the looms, and on an average earn between Rs.6000 to Rs.7000 a month. Some of them who produced more garments earned up to Rs. 20,000 a month.

The Hargila army has enlisted about 10,000 women in Assam who organise various awareness programmes in schools, colleges and other public places. In 2017, in recognition of her efforts at conservation, Purnima Devi Burman received the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the President of India and the Whitley Award, considered “the green Oscar”, from the United Kingdom-based Whitley Fund for Nature. She donated her award money to the Hargila movement.

The Hargila army operates mainly in the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari in Assam. Dr Purnima Devi Burman said: “My challenge in the beginning was that the field of conservation is dominated by men. Many women were reluctant to join me. Even my family members raised eyebrows. My parents wanted me to get a good job and earn a living.” But the Hargila army was fortunate to receive full financial support from the Women in Nature Network (WiNN). Even as the movement was in full swing, Purnima Devi Burman, who is a postgraduate in zoology, completed her PhD from Guwahati University. She is indebted to her professors Dr P.K. Saikia and P.C. Bhattacharjee, as well as her husband Dr Rathin Barman, a wildlife biologist.

The Bihar success story

Arvind Mishra, who hails from Bhagalpur in Bihar, did his M.Sc in Zoology. A medical representative who saved up money in order to travel and trek in forests, he established the Mandar Nature Club in 1990. He became involved in the protection of greater adjutant storks after he discovered them, along with his friend J.N. Mandal, in the Kadwa-Kosi Gangetic floodplains, about 25 kilometres from Bhagalpur, in October 2006. It was a birding spot unknown to the outside world at that time.

Having received information about these birds, Mishra and Mandal rushed to the spot and were surprised to see two nesting areas of greater adjutant storks. The villagers had taken a dislike to the noisy birds. Some tribals were hunting them down as well. Mishra and Mandal surveyed other districts, and found 16 more such nests. In 2007-2008, most of the 35 nests spotted were in the Kosi area of Bhagalpur. The discovery of such a breeding area of the adjutant storks rewrote the avifaunal history of Bihar.

Inspired by doyens such as Salim Ali’s student Azad Rehmani, Arvind Mishra marched ahead with his campaign to protect the greater adjutant stork. He also received support from organisations such as the Bombay National History Society, the Wildlife Trust of India, the Indian Bird Conservation Network and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In 2015, he resigned his job and became fully involved in the activities of the Mandar Nature Club to spread the message of nature conservation and the protection of the greater adjutant storks.

Like Purnima Devi Burman, Arvind Mishra, too, faced resistance from the villagers at first. The villagers were disturbed by the bird’s grunting, which they said scared their children. They also complained about bird excreta polluting their surroundings. However, Arvind Mishra pointed out to them that unlike the storks in Assam, the storks in the Kosi area did not scavenge, and were dependent on fish from the rivers and other water bodies.

While the villagers suspected him of being a police spy and a bird smuggler, the tribal people who used to collect stork eggs and chicks threatened him. However, in 2015, the Forest Department came forward to help Mishra and a rescue and rehabilitation centre was started in Bhagalpur. As many as 60 stork chicks that had fallen from the nests were treated and released into the forest.

Gradually, the village became prominent as naturalists, scientists and wildlife enthusiasts visited to see the endangered storks. As a result, the district administration took steps to develop the area, such as improving transport facilities and electrifyingthe village. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government took efficient steps to provide medical facilities to the people. Several expert doctors visited the area and examined the villagers.

Arvind Mishra says that all this was made possible only because of the greater adjutant stork. The bird’s habitat shot into the limelight and became an area of global importance. The villagers also took pride in this situation. Arvind Mishra confidently said: “This bird area and its surroundings has become a pilgrim centre of sorts for naturalists and bird lovers. They can see the bird in their natural habitats. A very promising sign is that it [the stork population] has increased to 600 from only 78 in 2006. A marvellous achievement.”

Now in Bhagalpur and adjoining areas, the villagers keep a round-the-clock watch of the trees during the nesting season. If any chicks fall down, they are immediately taken to the rescue and rehabilitation centre. Arvind Mishra has expanded the activities of Mandar Nature Club by enlisting many youngsters. They are named “Garuda guardians”. They worship the bird. When a bird dies, it is given a fitting farewell with a shower of flower petals as a mark of respect.

Youngsters and elders participate in large numbers in birds surveys conducted in Bihar. Locals are appointed as observers. They report about the birds, including storks. They are provided with mobile phones, binoculars, camera and data collection sheets. Safety nets made of thick nylon and lined with soft muslin are placed under trees to protect the chicks in case they fall out. This measure has been very effective. The forest officials contact local and State-level authorities at Patna to provide transport and medical facilities to the injured birds. To create awareness, village meetings are arranged in the breeding and foraging grounds of the greater and lesser adjutant storks. Village leaders, teachers, school students, elders and political workers and police are also involved in the meetings to support the awareness programmes. As a conservation measure, the storks are linked with religious practices, epics, spirit and mythology.

Dr K.S. Gopi Sundar, renowned ornithologist and Co-chair of the IUCN (Stork Division), told this writer: “In both Assam and Bihar, there are incredible long-term conservation movements that protect this bird. By all accounts, these birds are now on the increase. In Bihar the population is of particular significance, and efforts by Arvind Mishra have helped to streamline the villagers and helped preventing cutting of trees. He now works with the State government also to ensure long-term conservation of this bird.”

Dr Jaydev Mandal, Assistant Professor in Madhab Choudhary College, Barpeta, Assam, who completed his PhD on the ecology of the greater adjutant stork, said: “The greater adjutant storks is currently distributed in the Brahmaputra plains (Assam) with two-thirds of the global population, the Gangetic plains (Bihar) and Cambodia. The Brahmaputra valley provides immense natural habitats in the form of wetlands and swamps. The birds use kadamba, blackboard trees and silk cotton trees for nesting. Due to development and unregulated agricultural practices and promotion of cash crops, much of this vegetation has been cleared. The bird also lost tall tree cover.”

Dr Mandal said that the changing climate may impact the breeding of these birds. However, no studies have been published to establish this. In Guwahati’s garbage disposal area of Badagaon, which has the highest density of greater adjutant storks, hazardous waste and non-biodegradable elements such as plastic pose a serious threat.

Once the emblem of Kolkata

The Fauna of British India, Ceylon and Burma, written by H.A Baylis, Deputy Keeper of the Department of Zoology, British Museum, and published in 1939, records that greater adjutant storks could be seen on the highest points of every house in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) during the rainy season. They foraged for food in open grounds and racecourses. With the advancement of municipal sanitary work, these birds and jackals had to move out of the field. Baylis observed that this stork, a large ungainly bird with a grunting voice, also had a curious habit of picking up bright unusual objects, from small pieces of metal to soda bottles.

It is generally believed that the adjutant storks disappeared from Kolkata by 1950 or so. Rapid urbanisation could be one of the reasons, according to Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, member of the West Bengal Wildlife Board. There is an interesting story about the storks related to the emblem of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. During the British period, two storks holding a coat of arms (a heraldic visual design consisting of a shield of British royalty with a crow on the upper side) was sanctioned by the Duke of Norfolk and allotted to the Corporation.

After Independence, some of the Corporation councillors wanted to change the emblem. They argued that the city was now devoid of storks and not a single bird could be seen except in photographs in heritage buildings. They were also eager to shed the colonial hangover associated with the emblem. A committee was constituted with eminent artists and in February 1961, the new emblem of a hand holding a flame was adopted by the Corporation.

G. Maheswaran, senior scientist with the Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, said that the cutting of tall trees and low breeding success could be the reasons for the depletion of the stork population in the city. There could be other reasons as well. For example, there are garbage mounds in other parts of West Bengal, but adjutant storks are not seen there. So it may require further investigation. A report by BirdLife International that assesses the threatened birds of Asia says that the beginning of 20th century, adjutant storks were found in huge numbers in South and South East Asia, in countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. There was a massive decline over the next hundred years owing to hunting and habitat.

G. Shaheed is former Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau, Mathrubhumi, Kochi.