In the fertile Brahmaputra valley of Assam, a determined army of women are standing up for the hargila – the Greater Adjutant Stork – and lending their voices to save local biodiversity.

Image Credit: Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok
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The tale is a curious one. The hargila is not a very appealing bird thanks to its noisy and messy habits, but it is a critical species in wetlands. This bird is also highly endangered, with a global population of 1,200 mature individuals, of which 75% are found in Assam. These majestic birds were once found in wetlands across South and Southeast Asia, but today, their strongholds are slipping away. As the wetlands and forests where these storks live and nest slowly vanish, the storks have adjusted admirably, nesting in the tall trees surrounding villages. However, this drew heavy backlash from villagers. Adjutants bring rotting pieces of meat back to their nests to feed their hatchlings, a practice that lends to the negative impressions locals have of this bird. Hence, they got their name “hargila,” which means “bone swallower.” In fact, people were so disgusted by the unappealing nests that they took to chopping down the tall trees where the storks nested in order to dissuade them from settling near their villages.

But one woman decided to change the fate of the Adjutant in Assam.

Meet Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a member of the Avifauna Research and Conservation Division at Aaranyak. This NGO focuses on biodiversity research and conservation in Northeast India. Dr. Barman began her work on the Greater Adjutant during her PhD in 2007, when she surveyed nests to monitor nest success. She noted how well the birds were adapting to increasing urbanization around their wetland habitats. But one day, when she saw villagers tip over a nest with nine stork hatchlings to dissuade the storks from nesting in the village periphery, her entire goal changed. Barman realised that researching the storks was not enough; she had to actively change the minds of the locals who hated them.

Of course, the locals were not cruel; they were simply unaware of the ecological benefits of this large stork. Barman began her grassroots work by speaking with local women and trying to engage them in discussions on the benefits of the storks to the local ecology. She decided to bring women together through this work as women were often left out of important social decisions. She began organizing local events to bring together the women and draw them into her mission – to save the hargila.

Image Credit: Jantin Das/WorldBank Blogs

Today, over 400 women make up Barman’s Hargila Army, and they have no qualms about supporting her work. They learn about the food chain and where the hargila fits within it, and are particularly happy to hear that this stork keeps rat and mice populations to a minimum! They also act as the street cleaners of nature by consuming carcasses, preventing public health crises in the process. After initial training, Barman roped in the women to assist in rehabilitating injured storks and spreading the word of the stork’s importance to other villages in the Brahmaputra valley. Now, the women even celebrate the birth of new storks with a baby shower ceremony during the stork’s nesting season.

Barman also uses her platform to make positive changes in the lives of these marginalized women. She provides them with looms and threads to create financially-independent futures. The women weave age-old traditional gamosas (cotton towels) and mekhela sador (a traditional silk), finding ways to incorporate stork motifs into their work to raise awareness. Proceeds from sales go to these women and the storks benefit from a much-needed PR makeover! Over 10,000 women are involved in various aspects of this process.

My discovery of the Hargila Army was through online shopping. A small online company called PashooPakshee (based in Bangalore) has been working tirelessly to empower rural women, especially those living around tiger reserves, protected areas, and on the edges of forests, by engaging them in creating locally-made handicrafts, clothing, bags, toys, and stationary items to sell to those looking for creative and unique gifts. I came across this site a few years ago, and was amazed by the sheer variety of items, their high quality, and the backstories of the people creating them. Each item felt like a precious jewel, a symbol of hard work, dedication, and rural empowerment. And now, PashooPakshee also sells gamosas (see above image) and purses woven by the Hargila Army! Their famous emblem – the Greater Adjutant Stork – can be easily recognized on their products, and its story is spreading rapidly across India (and now, internationally!). Dr. Barman’s work with the women of Assam is truly an inspiring tale, and one that PashooPakshee celebrates.

A sari designed by the Hargila Army (sadly this is not available on PashooPakshee yet)

You can go to PashooPakshee’s website (click here) and see their wonderful products, including those supporting the Hargila Army (highly recommended, please do buy if you are looking for sustainable, small-businesses to support). Truly, the Greater Adjutant could not have asked for a better protector than Dr. Barman and her fierce band of women who understand the importance of this wetland bird and are fighting to restore its population. Dr. Barman has received numerous awards for her work to save this maligned stork, from the Nari Shakti Purashkar Award by the President of India (the highest civilian award for a woman in India), the Whitley Award 2017, the UNDP India Biodiversity Award from the United Nations, among others.

Thanks to this hargila baido (“stork sister”), this once-hated bird is now a symbol of pride for Assam.

*Featured Image by Smita Sharma/Audobon

Learn More About Dr. Barman and the Hargila Army:

More articles for interested readers:

Inspiring Women to Protect Assam’s Greater Adjutant and Its Habitat” – Whitley Award Winners

Hargila Army Led by a Woman Saves the Stork” – Abdul Gani/

Meet the Indian Scientist Who Gave the Greater Adjutant Stork an Image Makeover” – Arundhati Nath/All About Birds

4 thoughts on “The Revival of the Hargila

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