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| Last Updated:: 06/06/2016

Three Northeast Stork Villages on Global Map









Three nondescript villages — Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari — in Brahmaputra Valley of Assam’s Kamrup District have found a place on the global conservation map. Located in the vicinity of 32 wetlands, they are the breeding grounds of nearly half the world’s population of endangered Greater Adjutant storks.


What’s more, the species is being conserved by a 70-member all-female brigade that recently bagged the UNDP India Biodiversity Award, 2016 for its pioneering efforts.


As per the International Union of Conservation Network (IUCN), there are  800-1,200 mature individuals of the species existing worldwide. Of this, nearly 80 per cent exist in India and the rest in Cambodia. Assam alone hosts more than 75 per cent of the bird’s global population. The remaining is found in the Kosi Diara region in Bihar.


In Assam, the bird is locally called, Hargilla (meaning swallower of bones) and the conservation team has earned the epithet of the “Hargilla Army”. The three villages today boast of a population of above 550 birds, having the world’s largest nesting colonies.


From a baseline survey of 28 nests in 2006-2007 on 28 trees, their numbers have increased to about 171 on 57 trees. In addition, the Hargilla Army is also working in the nesting colonies of Nagaon and in the Brahmaputra Valley with the help of villagers and NGOs. “Even as a child, I was drawn towards this spectacularly distinct bird, that I found strutting in the fields and grasslands. The UNDP award for its conservation is a big morale booster for our work,” says Purnima Devi Barman, wildlife biologist from Aaranyak in Assam, who is leading the group.


Aaranyak, is an organisation based in Guwahati, that is working in the field of nature conservation in North-East India for more than two decades.


For the “Sister of the Storks”, as Purnima is fondly called, the turning point in her life came in 2009. She became the recipient of the prestigious Conservation Leadership Award on the basis of her initial efforts to protect this rarest stork in the world. (The award is a partnership of three of the world’s leading biodiversity conservation organisations, viz Fauna and Flora International, Bird Life International and Wildlife Conservation Society.)


According to Purnima, “The most pressing problem faced by the Greater Adjutant is the struggle to find a suitable nesting site that has a colonial habit of nesting.” Further, the birds are large, weighing between 6-8 kgs, having a height of between 150 cms-180 cms with a massive wing span of about 250 cms. Hence as per their needs, a single tree should be strong enough to hold them and their multiple nests. Further, they prefer returning to the same tree year after year, she adds.


The tall trees like Kadam, Silk Cotton, Barhar etc, are the preferred habitats of the bird, where they build nests on top of the canopy. “But the problem was that these trees are owned by the villagers and the birds were not welcome to them,” she recalls.


The birds are largely scavengers feeding on dead flesh, carrions etc and would thus litter their place of nesting in the vicinity of the village homes with remnants of their diet. Further, their droppings have very unpleasant odour. The cacophony of their harsh calls worsened the situation for them and the local communities would rather do away with this “avian nuisance”, by cutting down the trees and destroying the habitat of this “dirty” bird.


Purnima, however, overcame this initial challenge by convincing the women folks with the endangered status of the bird. “When I told them that the last few surviving numbers of the species in the world are struggling to find a home in our villages, they were moved,” she says.


Celebrities were invited to propagate the idea further. With the village women by her side, there was no looking back for the “stork lady”. The local communities, Kamrup district administration and police besides the grassroot organisations also joined hands with the Hargilla Army to save the bird.


The next big challenge was to protect the birds during the breeding season from August to April. The risks of mortality of chicks falling from nearly 70 feet tall trees were high, with an average of 20 annually, she says. As on date, the falling of chicks from nest is less than 5 per cent.


Nilima Das, an active member of the Hargilla Army says, “We celebrate the nesting season of Greater Adjutant as the occasion of baby shower, praying for the well being of the chicks.” The Kadam tree she protects houses nine nests. Further, the villagers also enact street plays from time to time as awareness campaigns in the villages. A rescue and rehabilitation of the bird in collaboration with the Assam State Zoo has also been developed and run by Aaranyak.



However, their efforts do not stop here. In order to make the conservation initiatives sustainable, livelihood options are being worked out with State Institute of Rural Development for skill enhancement and capacity building of the stakeholders. The women are being trained to create motifs of Greater Adjutants in the traditional white and red Assamese towel. Twenty eight looms (hand weaving machines) have been distributed among 14 self help groups of women, to patronise their work further and link their products with marketing agencies.






Source: The Pioneer