Hargila Baidew: Purnima Barman's never-ending efforts to save the Greater Adjutant Stork

Guwahati: 42-year-old conservationist Purnima Barman’s wild spirit has a very poignant side to it. As a kid from Dadara (Kamrup district), she used to write letters to her father who had a transferable job. Her grandmother, with whom she spent most of her childhood, taught her how to write these letters and guided her through the description of vultures and abundant storks.

It was also believed that her exams would go well if she saw a sight of these birds on her way. Writing about birds who perform nature’s most essential job of cleansing at corpse sites began this way. These birds that are seen as “ugly” and “dirty” are more than just their stereotypes. 

Years later, Purnima tells me excitedly about the spotting of a Hargila (Greater Adjutant stork) nest, an endangered species now, in Jorhat. In Morigaon, where she and her team worked, they found that one tree alone had 43 nests. Better known as Hargila Baidew, her community’s attempts of rescuing Hargila nests and promoting wildlife conservation were severely ridiculed by society. “The act of scavenging, though socially prejudiced, is the most respectful task. The way Hargila was neglected, my initial interests too were. From being mocked for being a woman in this field to resisting my research, I’ve faced a lot of challenges” Purnima shares. “I was very sensitive about this. Once near our house, many trees containing stork nests were cut and I went through similar heartbreak. I was determined to change this.”

Wetlands and storks

Hargila, literally “bone-swallower” is almost as tall as a human, about 145-150cms. A common rural belief in Kamrup according to Purnima, is also that the Greater Adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius) were our ancestors. It is a member of the stork family Ciconiidae and breeds in wetland ecologies in many parts of South and South-East Asia. Purnima’s research took her into deeper terrains. She says, “Hargila is synonymous with conservation because we have to save every species. Even one life counts. Protected areas have some norms, but what about the wildlife in unprotected areas? We are not paying attention to this fact. A lot of birdlife, including Hargila, nests in unprotected areas. We cannot demarcate the wild with categories and boundaries.”

in Gauhati, India , Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/ Anupam Nath)

Furthermore, she suggests that we need to change wetland policies to deal with anthropogenic activities like dumping plastic into wetlands. She states, “Hargilas choose their feed from paddy areas carefully because they need nutrition–calcium, frogs, reptiles and other creatures. Besides, bamboo material and its availability near the wetlands are required to secure their nests.”

The success of Hargila breeding is related to wetland ecology. Often, the nests get broken due to storms and a lack of sturdy nesting material. Sometimes the mother also has to discard a few eggs, it’s tragic. They come to the human habitat as if seeking some help. Wetlands and green covers in villages are very crucial thus.

in Gauhati, India , Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/ Anupam Nath)

A study “Nesting Ecology of the Greater Adjutant Stork in Assam, India” also points to this feature of the birds seeking proximity with humans. They state “Another unique aspect of Assam villages is that almost every family has either a private forest or mixed plantation including bamboo near their house. Five of the nine colonies were within this type of forest and the rest were also very near.”

Hargila conservation at the grassroots 

A member of Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak, Purnima shares that for storks, the right to breathe is in much peril, “There is just no waiting anymore. The climate crisis is at its worst and the northeastern region is already sinking.”

With more than 10,000 dedicated members in her all-women conservation team, today she participates in and collectively organises programmes, and workshops in villages and schools to raise more awareness and consciousness about the ecological importance of the Hargila species.

 “Now whenever a new bird or an unknown nest is spotted, everyone calls us up to save the nests. Our mission has transcended the Hargila species and this is what I dreamt of,” adds Purnima. “Because in places like Sibsagar, it is rare now to see plenty of hargila nests. In Morigaon, there are places like Lothabari, Rojagaon, then Khutukotia, and Bebezia in Nagaon there are nests—but very fragmented again. Any conservationist effort will only reap fruits if the coexistence of species is the benchmark.” 

Educating rural areas about Hargila

In Dadara, Purnima and her team are attempting to inculcate environmental awareness in children through creative and fun methods. This has ensured that their folks don’t discourage them from voluntarily taking up tasks that rescue wildlife. “People are the greatest stakeholders in the unprotected areas. If the inhabitants are not educated nearby, the future lot of species will be lost. A lot of unity and awareness is necessary, considering how ruthlessly urbanity is expanding and destroying adjutant stork breeding colonies. In rural areas, addressing environmental problems have its challenges and gender roles are still a hurdle.”

A major factor that initially created a lot of ruckus in the village was the fact that the endeavours sought to bring in active participation of the women. There was tremendous resistance before Purnima became more recognised globally. A lot of them were homemakers, they had to juggle chores and face problems from their male counterparts. Ignorance, taboos and prejudices about the bird infected with diseases were also present and she had to continuously innovate her ways to approach them. This is where the intersection of the environment with gender and culture took shape. 

Cookery contests, weaving and women

“While teaching kids, I introduce my lessons by speaking of a thread: web of life. Everyone is supposed to create these webs and speak of how different species in the ecosystem are interlinked,” Purnima says. “The weavers inspired me to initiate this concept. I’m so keen to learn to weave because Dadara weavers are some of the best handloom weavers. We have been able to globally sell their handmade products and our hargila-motif masks and mekhalas were a big hit.”  

The ever-changing dynamics connecting Hargila’s majestic presence with humans is an invitation to deeper problems in society. Purnima points out, “For example, since cooking chores were a big deal, I organised cookery contests and brought the kitchen to the outdoor spaces so that women could join in. I also attempt to speak of the Hargila inside naamghars and other such spaces where plenty of elderly women assemble.”

The rural domain is no longer static even though nostalgia frequently paints such a picture. The greater adjutant storks are also the responsibility of dwellers of urban, semi-urban, suburban and indeed all carcass-filled spaces. 

Located west of Guwahati, the Dadara skies are today filled with more Hargilas than ever before. Realisation and education take time but the Hargila women keep trying nonetheless. “The women who are also bringing in youths from all genders to cooperate and participate in this community movement are my strength,” Purnima says. “I tell them nobody can cage us, we are meant to fly.”

(This story is published with the support of Population First’s Laadli Media Fellowship 2022. The author is an independent researcher in Assam. She tweets @barman_rini). 

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