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Saving the Stork

stork-festival-vyn

Photo: Gerrit Vyn at Living Bird.
A conservation army of women has worked hard to revive the population of an odd endangered stork, the Greater Adjutant. The work is tied to Aaranyak, a nonprofit focused on biodiversity in northeast India.

As I was trying to decide if you’d be interested in another initiative that might be on hold because of Covid-19, I read the article more carefully and saw something that confirmed it is merely experiencing a pause. “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.” 

Hargila? Greater Adjutant? The story of an inspiring Indian conservationist comes from Arundhati Nath at All About Birds.

“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. … 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. …

“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. …

“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. …

“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. … 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.

‘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.’ …

“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.

“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.)” More at All About Birds, here.

adds a bit more on Barnum at the Better India. “Fondly referred to as the ‘Hargila Baideu’ (Stork Sister) by the local community for the work she has been doing for the birds, Purnima has dedicated her life to protect the Greater Adjutant. …

” ‘My grandmother instilled my love and passion for nature. But it was during my Master’s studying ecology and wildlife biology, when my professors spoke of the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork, which were then nowhere to be seen in my grandmother’s paddy fields. I volunteered at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based non-profit wildlife conservation organisation, but saw that people’s interest was restricted to glamourous species like the rhino or tigers. So, why shouldn’t I work towards protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork,’ says Purnim.” More here.

By the way, this week I’m drinking a vey nice loose-leaf tea from Assam, home of the Greater Adjutant. Upton Teas has a huge selection, and they ship fast.

Map: Jillian Ditner. Greater Adjutant image: Amol Marathe/Macaulay Library.

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