All-Women 'Army' Protecting Rare Bird in India

DADARA, INDIAOn a cloudy day in July, in a remote village in northeastern India, Charu Das excitedly imitates the awkward movements of a stork with her hands.

In a few months, the greater adjutant stork—called hargilla, which means "swallower of bones" in Sanskrit—will descend on this hamlet, situated in Assam's Brahmaputra Valley, to breed in large numbers.

"You will soon catch sight of this dark, quirky-looking bird, with large, thick bills, stalking over the beds of these wetlands or on the rain-soaked paddy fields in its typical military gait," Das says.

Dadara and two nearby villages, Pasariya, and Singimari, are flanked by food-rich wetlands and brimming with tall trees perfect for nesting. The region has become a major stronghold for this homely creature: Due mostly to deforestation and widespread development of wetlands, only between 800 and 1,200 greater adjutant storks remain in India and Cambodia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

But thanks to the efforts of the Hargilla Army, a conservation brigade of 70 local women, the region is now "the biggest greater adjutant nesting colony in the world," says Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist with Aaranyak, a conservation nonprofit in Assam.

Half—or around 550—of the big birds live in these three villages,according to a 2015 study led by Barman.

"Such a large number of nests have not been recorded in other .... colonies in India or in Cambodia."

Backed by the district administration and local conservation groups, the Hargilla Army has been successful reducing threats and protecting habitat of the stork that the group won the United Nations Development Program India's 2016 Biodiversity Award.

From Filthy to Famous

Many villagers considered the birds "filthy" because of their smelly droppings; harsh calls; and tendency to litter their food, sometimes collected from garbage dumps, Barman says.

Because the birds are so large—up to 18 pounds (eight kilograms)—and live in colonies, trees have to be strong enough to hold them and their many nests.

However, most tall, hardy trees grow on private lands, and local people would often chop the trees down to get rid of the storks, she says. (Take National Geographic's bird quiz.)

The solution, Barman thought, was to work with the local communities to conserve the animal. Because women play decisive roles in Assam's rural households, Barman began befriending them, especially those from the families of tree owners.

Sacred Bird

She organized small, informal meetings to talk about the bird's role in the environment, such as scavenging and disposing of dead animals and its essential link in the food chain of the surroundings wetlands. Barman also emphasized the bird's importance in Hindu mythology, as Lord Vishnu's mount.

Thus the Hargilla Army was born.

"We were awestruck ... by the newfound importance of our villages due to this bird and the trees," recalls Nilima Das, a brigade member who's now an active conservationist. (Das is a common last name in Dadara.)

"Soon we realized that the bird in our backyard is not ordinary. It is sacred, and with just a few hundred left in the world ... we are fortunate to own the trees where they breed," she says with pride. (See more stork photos.)

After the women convinced their families to save the nesting trees, the people began developing a sense of ownership toward them—and since 2010, no one has cut down a tree, Barman claims.

Ornithologist Asad Rahmani says the brigade's work has helped the bird.

I have personally visited the villages and witnessed the tremendous community-based effort of the Hargilla Army," says Rahmani, senior scientific advisor at the Bombay Natural History Society, who has not been involved in the project.

"The best part is that the brigade has been drawn from the rural community women" who know their environment well, and are thus best suited to safeguard the birds.

Safe Haven

The conservation brigade, organized into 14 groups with five members, also has the support of many district administrators, police, and local nonprofits, says Barman, whose dedication to the species has earned her the nickname "Hargilla Baido," or "Stork Sister."

"It was my childhood dream to work on this spectacularly distinct bird, being pushed dangerously close to extinction," she says. (Also see "Beloved Storks, Emblems of Fertility, Rebounding in France.")

The conservationists have taken their message to schools, where children paint the bird. In one school, the women erected a plaster idol of the bird. The women are also learning to weave stork motifs into traditional products and garb that will be put up for sale.

Sometimes the women even play the part of greater adjutants themselves, donning masks in street-corner plays.

We "sing naam [prayer songs] to augur well for the mother birds and their eggs," says Pratibha Das, a brigade member who represents the local conservation committee.

The women have also written hymns just for the storks. Translated into English, the beginning of one reads: “Hargilla, you are safe in our village. Come and breed here and grow your family. We are blessed with your presence here.”

'An Army Without Arms'

More challenges remain for the species, in particular chick deaths. If strong winds or storms knock the youngsters from their nests—which are sometimes 75 feet (23 meters) high—they could be injured or die.

As a result, the local government and conservation brigade has placed nets around trees to catch fledglings. If villagers notice fallen chicks, they inform the local police station. Officials then take the animals to theAssam State Zoo, where they'll recover before being released back into the wild. (Read about the myth of storks as baby bringers.)

Since installing the nets, chick deaths have fallen considerably, Barman says.

Such accomplishments have encouraged the brigade to expand their protections to other greater adjutant nesting colonies in the Brahmaputra Valley.

"Our Hargilla Army is an army without arms," she says, "yet armed with the commitment and determination to battle against all odds in saving this endangered bird."

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