India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam. Read part 1 to the story HERE.
By the time the Women in Nature Network conference came to Purnima Devi Barman’s hometown in early 2019, she had transformed the greater adjutant’s prospects. Not only has the number of storks in the villages of Assam more than doubled since she began her work, from 400 birds to as many as 1,200 (of which 800 are mature), numbers of nests have grown nearly 10-fold, from 27 to 215 in the villages where she has focused her efforts. And there are signs of population growth to come. Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010, Barman says. One colony is producing about 85 juvenile birds a year, half of which survive. And her conservation work has also expanded to include an assisted breeding program that is beginning to show results. After not producing any viable birds during its launch year in 2017, the program released one fledgling in 2019 and five in 2020.
As Barman’s successes have accumulated, she has been able to tell an ever-growing audience about what she has been up to, and Melvin isn’t the only person who has been captivated by the biologist and her work. Another enthusiast is Carla Rhodes, a longtime comedienne and ventriloquist from New York who had recently picked up wildlife photography and developed her own obsession with greater adjutants when she got an unexpected call from a friend in the summer of 2018. The friend was a producer working on a TV pilot for a show called “Rickshaw Run,” which sends people out to navigate some of the most dangerous roads in the world in motorized rickshaws. The next season would soon be filming in India, he told her, and a participant had dropped out of the show at the last minute. Would Rhodes consider going in his place?
Rhodes said yes, if only to get to India where she planned to stay after the filming so she could take photographs. She flew out that September and after surviving the rickshaw adventure, she went to Manas National Park in Assam. It was the rainy season in India, and the park was one of the few in the country that was accessible. She had an incredible experience in the park, where she took pictures of elephants, rhinos, capped langurs, and more. Then, on the drive back to Guwahati, Assam’s hub town, she spotted a giant, blue-eyed, dinosaur-like bird standing by a rice field on the side of the road. She asked her driver to stop. He told her it was an endangered greater adjutant and offered to show her more on their way back to Guwahati.
Expecting to be taken to a wetland, Rhodes was surprised when the car pulled up at an enormous, sprawling garbage dump. Hargilas stood on mountains of trash alongside cows, soiled white egrets, and garbage-pickers—people who make money by rummaging through the landfill. The temperature was stiflingly hot, and the smell reminded Rhodes of New York City on garbage day in the summer—multiplied by 100. The scene was both post-apocalyptic and beautiful, and although she had to fly home the next day, she felt transformed. “I was only there for about 20 minutes, but it just moved me and shook me to the core of my being,” she says. “It was at that moment I decided I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer. I want to be a wildlife conservation photographer.”
Determined to find a way back to India and the birds, Rhodes began researching as soon as she returned home to Brooklyn. She learned about Barman, who she contacted by email in early 2019, around the time of the WiNN meeting there. Drawn in by the contagious nature of Barman’s single-minded passion, she was soon offering to help out. With a small grant from WiNN, Rhodes returned to Assam for five weeks in February and March, 2020—just before the world shut down because of COVID-19.
Even though Rhodes was a stranger, Barman invited her to stay in her home, where she lives with her biologist husband and two now-teenage daughters. Rhodes spent those weeks following Barman everywhere. They went to the market, where the conservationist stuffed her cloth bag to the brim with vegetables, refusing to use plastic. They went to schools and villages, where people treated Barman like a celebrity. Rhodes even attended a wedding with Barman, who somehow convinced the couple to adorn their ceremony with statues of hargilas and to paint images of the birds on guests’ hands with henna.
Rhodes repeatedly marveled at how much influence Barman had on just about everyone, including the police. If someone reports an injured hargila, officers help them transport the birds to zoos for rehab. “You call the police about an injured animal in my area, they’re like, ‘We can’t do anything,’” Rhodes says. Barman’s group is also working with government officials to build nets under trees to catch any nestlings that fall.
Watching Barman at work, it was clear to Rhodes that Barman was the reason why the storks were thriving in a community that had had once hated the birds. Rhodes took thousands of photos, some of them featured in this story. “I thought it would just be like, you’d see a hargila here, you’d see one there. But there are so many, it’s insane,” Rhodes says. “And she is responsible for bringing them back because she convinced people to take ownership of this bird—that it’s a privilege that this bird chose your tree to nest in, and to not cut these trees down.”
Historically, greater adjutants thrived in the vast wetlands of India and beyond, where they fed on abandoned carcasses and nested in wild trees. As wetlands have disappeared and been paved over by development, the birds have shifted their habits, building nests in the village trees of Assam and eating in the nearby landfill. For Rhodes, the landfill offered striking imagery full of symbolism: birds scavenging alongside people on mountains of discarded items. For Barman, the garbage dump is just another place to spread the word about bird conservation. One day, Rhodes watched as Barman walked through the dump, talked with people, handed out posters, and gave sweets and coloring sheets to kids.
Biologists, too, have a growing interest in places like these—often overlooked habitats in urban landscapes, where wild animals are finding new ways to adapt. And dumps aren’t necessarily all bad, according to a 2017 review of 159 studies that looked at 98 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians found on garbage dumps all over the world, especially in Europe, North America, and Africa.
The analysis turned up plenty of negative effects, including elevated risks of infection, poisoning, and human-animal conflicts in the dumps. According to a 2016 study of white storks, birds that fed in landfills were more likely to stick around throughout the year, drastically reducing their migratory range. Living around landfills also increases a stork’s chances of picking up an E. coli infection, according to a study published in 2020.
But dumps have also become important sources of food in changing environments. And compared to animals living in natural areas, the review found that polar bears, island foxes, bald eagles, and other creatures that fed in dumps did better than other individuals on a number of measures that included body condition, reproductive success, and survival. Among the effects that dumps had on various species, more than 70 percent were positive. In one study included in the review, dump-dwelling white storks produced more eggs compared to birds that didn’t have access to these food resources.
What rapid and urban development means for the future of any given species is still unclear. But acknowledging the hargila’s adaptability to a new kind of ecological landscape has the potential to highlight novel approaches to conservation into the 21st century, Tracy Melvin says, in part by helping people relate to species that live in their midst. “What’s so endearing about them is that they survived through habitat degradation, through illegal persecution, through everything. And they are just like, ‘Well, I’m going to eat in the dumps, and I’m fine with it.’ They’re a rugged, persistent thing,” she says, adding that there are parallels between the birds and the human garbage-pickers, who have also had to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances. “They’re a remnant bird from this vast, once-functional landscape, and here they are. This is reality. This is what they’re dealing with now.”
Barman’s approach accepts the reality of the world as it is right now, Melvin says. Her work incorporates the idea that pristine wilderness is a false construct and that saving species requires involving the people who live alongside those species. It also illustrates how persistence and a focus on raising awareness can rapidly transform the way people think about animals: from reviled to adored in just a decade.
It’s hard to imagine ranchers in the American West adopting wolves as their mascots, but Barman’s work holds lessons for conservation projects around the world, Melvin adds. She made conservation mainstream from the bottom up—going door to door and person to person, hearing people out, helping people develop livelihoods, making it all happen without waiting for the government to take charge. Those are steps anyone could take anywhere. “It’s truly an example of how doing a small lift for people in their home countries can make conservation truly effective,” she says. “Maybe that’s what the world needs is people to just think less and do more.”
Enacting change doesn’t have to cost much, Flores says. With a clear objective and genuine connections, it is possible to do a lot with a little for any species. Barman has made great strides with limited resources. “As a conservationist, I used to visit fantastic, very high-level projects in Africa and other places,” Flores says. “This is a simple community project, but everyone in the community is engaged. You can see the commitment in women and the kids. Everybody is very, very proud of having that project in the community. To me, that is amazing.”
For Barman, saving hargilas by involving women has been a personal mission as much as a professional one. When her daughters were little, she used to take them into the field, where they would stay with an assistant and watch as she climbed 85-foot trees to study the nesting birds before coming back down to feed her own kids. As her daughters grew, they began to accompany her on community outreach efforts. In 2018, they watched her finally achieve her dream of earning a PhD. “I think they saw all the struggles. I think that helped them to know the life, to know in depth about wildlife,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Every day your heart should be an environmentalist. Every day you wake up, you should live like an environmentalist. It doesn’t mean you have to be a biologist by profession. But every work you do, it should be for nature.’ And they agree. They really love it.”
Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.
Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.
This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.