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.
In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.
As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).
Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.
Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.
In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.
“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”
The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.
Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.
Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.
Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird? Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home?
Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”
Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.
Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.
In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”
Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.
With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”
Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”
Check in next week for the conclusion of this series!
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.