Tired of the bad news and the fake news? Here’s a feel-good news story that is sure to pick you up and inspire you to do good … or at least buy some bird seed for your outdoor feeder. A group of women in India has voluntarily banded together to save the rare greater adjutant stork – a large bird that was once revered in India but later became reviled because its scavenging led it to be seen mostly at garbage dumps. Their efforts may have saved it from extinction and showed the world that small groups can still accomplish big things.
The five-foot-tall greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) is more commonly known as the hargila, a derivation of the Sanskrit hadda-gilla or “bone-swallower” in honor of their once respected value as scavengers. The birds were believed to be protected by the souls of dead Brahmins and their flesh, chewed with betel leaf, was alleged to cure leprosy. Its massive head was rumored to contain a magic “snake-stone” that was a universal antidote for all snake venoms. The mysterious stone disappeared if the bird was killed and its beak touched the ground before the stone could be removed.
While its territory once covered southern Asia, the number of greater adjutants dropped to 1,000 by the 1990s, divided into two small colonies in India and Cambodia. While the fashion trade’s desire for their feathers was a major contributor, the real cause of their demise was their once-prized scavenging nature. As the human population exploded, the large birds eating their rotting garbage and leaving messy droppings drove residents to cut down nesting trees – an easy and effective way to kill off the hargilas.
Enter Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist and conservationist from Assam – a home to many of the remaining birds – who decided in 2008 to save the storks. It took almost eight years to get past the feelings that the birds were not only dirty and messy but also brought bad luck. Barman convinced women that it was a matter of local pride to save these native birds from extinction and eventually – through lectures, visits and assistance from the government – organized 150 women into the Hargila Army who call their leader Hargila Baideo (Hargila Sister).
Under Barman’s direction, the women convince landowners to stop cutting down nesting trees and provide them with nets – both government-supplied and handmade by the Hargila Army – to catch babies that fall from the nests and either put them back or take them to a nursery. In just a few years, the total stork population has risen to 1,800 and Barman was recently given the RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) Earth Hero Award 2016.
Despite the efforts of the Hargila Army, insidious forces continue to battle them and the birds. In January 2017, over two dozen greater adjutants were found dead in Gauhati. The cause has not yet been determined.
Purnima Devi Barman, the Hargila Sister, is proof that one person can still make an impact. That is real and good news.