The vanishing storks of Assam
Guwahati: Deepor Beel is under threat. The pristine wetland located the southwest of Guwahati city in Assam's Kamrup district is slowly turning into a wasteland, thanks to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation dumping all its waste in the vicinity.
Once spread over 4,000 hectares, the wetland has now shrunk to about 500 hectares and faces various natural and anthropogenic threats.
The wetland is home to over 200 species of migratory birds including the endangered greater adjutant, a member of the stork family.
Once found widely across southern Asia, the greater adjutant is now restricted to a much smaller range with only three breeding populations -- two in India, with the largest colony in Assam.
With the loss of nesting trees, widespread destruction and degradation of wetlands, their population is decreasing by the day.
Near Deepor Beel, the vast expanse of stinking garbage has become one of the favoured breeding grounds of the rare bird. "The storks eat everything they find here including rotten fish, rotten meat and other stuff. They die eating all the unhealthy things from this dump yard," said Rahim Ali, a ragpicker.
"Their primary food is left-overs. That’s why they are known as carrion–eaters. They keep the bad things clear from the environment," said Moloy Baruah, president of Early Birds NGO. "Sometimes, because of mixing-up of poison and other plastic or non-consumable food, they get killed. That is happening around Deepor Beel and garbage dumping ground," he added.
While the dumping ground was to be shifted to Chandrapur in November 2015, this has not happened on ground so far.
"Getting a suitable place away from human habitation near Guwahati is a major challenge. But I am aware that the government departments are exploring that. I think more public pressure is essential to fasten the process as this garbage dump is definitely having some detrimental effects not only to the greater adjutant storks but also to the fish," said Bibhab Talukdar, CEO of Aaranyak, a leading widlife NGO based in Guwahati.
Not all hope is lost yet
Meanwhile, not very far away from Guwahati, a small village called Dadara is scripting another story, a positive one for the greater adjutants. Flanked by food-rich wetlands and brimming with tall trees, Dadara has become a perfect place for nesting. "We don’t cut the trees as the hargilla [as the stork is called locally] will be in grave danger," said a villager.
"Not too long ago, however, the bird wasn’t quite as welcome," he added.
"Earlier we used to kill them but now, more and more villagers are involved in conservation," said Jadav Das, another villager.
Once an object of revulsion, this not-so-pretty bird is now a matter of pride. The women of the village formed Hargilla Army, for the bird’s name in the Assamese language with the commitment and determination to battle against all odds in saving this endangered bird.
They now weave scarves and other items in handloom with motifs of the bird to create awareness about the need to protect the species. "I salute those people who are giving shelters to these endangered birds. Despite the fact that during breeding seasons they dirty the campus…but that is something they should be proud of, that despite the challenges, they are doing something which educated, financially sound people cannot do. So, salute goes to these people. They are the unsung heroes," said Talukdar of Aaranyak.
The villagers ensure safety of this once-reviled scavenger bird by providing nets to protect young storks falling out of the nests during storms or windy days.
However, the absence of any veterinary centre in the neighbourhood has become a major concern. "A treatment centre is needed in the village as the state zoo is very far away," said Jadav Das.
"Since there are no other facilities nearby, the only option is to bring the chicks or the injured birds to the zoo to get maximum benefit from the available veterinarians. But, the government can definitely think of opening some NGOs; but it has to be a sustainable one. You do one year and the second year, you don’t have funding then it again collapses the whole process," added Talukdar of Aaranyak.
At the same time, the villagers are anxious that their efforts won’t be compensated. "We asked for compensation, but so far nothing has been provided. We planted more trees, no compensation provided," said a villager.
However, Talukdar of Aaranyak maintained a different view. "Sometimes, people expect that since they are providing shelter, it needs to be compensated, rewarded. Villagers are conserving some species of pelicans, storks. They have also started providing monetary benefits. But this becomes detrimental. People start negotiating, does some sort of black-mailing. NGOs also save birds, but it is not only for us. Nowadays, in lot of areas in India, monetary contribution for conserving wildlife areas has been discouraged because there are lots of examples where it didn’t work. So, there are pros and cons involved," he added.
Whether compensated or not, Dadara is still working towards the conservation of the endangered bird.
However, a census conducted by Early Birds, an NGO working in the field of forest and wildlife, portrays a complete different picture when it comes to Guwahati. Here, the numbers of adjutant storks is slowly falling.
Altogether 287 birds, the highest number, were recorded in 2002. In 2010, their number went down to 113, the lowest so far in the past census. In all, 220 storks were found in the 2018 census. "If people of Assam do not give any importance to the greater adjutant stork, then it’ll definitely vanish. Because Myanmar has already lost its population. Cambodia is having only 150, Bihar 250 and no other Indian states have hargilla population. The government needs to put emphasis to aware people," said Baruah of Early Birds.
Assam is considered the last global strong hold of the greater adjutant stork, a threatened bird.
Dadara village has set an example by taking ownership of protecting the species. But for the species to thrive much more needs to be done.