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A Women’s Army Rising to Save India’s Storks

In this often tragic world, many animals became endangered. Several species are rare to find in their own habitats, while others witnessed the collapse of their own. India’s rare storks, the Hargillas, are yet another example of these suffering animals. Over the years, their numbers diminished until a group of local women rose to their aide.

The mission

It all started when Purnima Devi Barman was researching her Ph.D. on the greater adjutant, one of the world’s rarest storks. There, she noticed a sad reality. The number of storks she had grown up seeing flocking freely around her home had greatly diminished. “It disturbed me so much that I put my Ph.D. on hold and made it my mission to keep the bird alive in its habitat,” she said.“Many people work with ‘glamorous’ species like the rhino or the elephant, but I chose the stork. The bird had been an integral part of my life. I had wonderful memories of my grandmother narrating interesting tales and singing to me about them. She also taught me how to identify the different stork species. All those memories motivated me to protect the endangered bird.”

Fighting the stigma

The five-foot-tall, scruffy bird with spindly legs and dull grey feathers wasn’t a welcome sight to many of the villagers. Moreover, since it scavenges on rotting flesh and sullies people’s homes with its odoriferous droppings, people started considering the bird as ominous and revolting. 

“I was once horrified to see nine baby birds plop to the ground in front of me when a villager felled an entire tree with many nesting storks,” states Barman. “When I tried to stop him, he was furious with me and started arguing how the bird was nothing more than a nuisance.”

Furthermore, it is this very same stigma that has led to a precipitous decline in the storks’ numbers, says Barman. Thus, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the bird is now listed as an endangered species with only 800 to 1,200 mature storks left in the world. 

Therefore, the only way to save these storks was to fight the stigma around them. “The villagers hated the bird because they were ignorant of its great ecological significance. So at community meetings, I began to explain that, like most scavengers, storks clean up the environment by consuming decaying animal carcasses and maintain the food chain in an ecosystem by regulating the number of smaller animals like rodents and other pests,” she says. Though at first people dismissed her, many started seeing the error of their ways. Thus, Thus the Hargilla Army was born.

The rise of the Hargilla Army

“We were awestruck … by the newfound importance of our villages due to this bird and the trees,” remembers Nilima Das, a brigade member who’s now an active conservationist.

“Soon we realized that the bird in our backyard is not ordinary. It is sacred, and with just a few hundred left in the world … we are fortunate to own the trees where they breed,” she adds with pride. 

These women then started educating their families. They even managed to convince their families against cutting their nesting trees. Thus, since 2010, no one has cut down any of those trees, Barman claims. 

“I have personally visited the villages and witnessed the tremendous community-based effort of the Hargilla Army,” says Rahmani, a senior scientific advisor at the Bombay Natural History Society. “The best part is that the brigade has been drawn from the rural community women” who know their environment well. Therefore, they are best suited to safeguard the birds.

Effective results

The conservation brigade of 70 local women turned the region into “the biggest greater adjutant nesting colony in the world,” says Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist with Aaranyak, a conservation nonprofit in Assam.

Moreover,  according to a 2015 study led by Barman, half of these storks wold population now lives in these three villages. “Such a large number of nests have not been recorded in other …. colonies in India or Cambodia.”

Finally, she also states that though “Our Hargilla Army is an army without arms, it is “armed with the commitment and determination to battle against all odds in saving this endangered bird.”

References:

All-Women “Army” Protecting Rare Bird in India. (2016, August 15). Nationalgeographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/08/storks-science-india-animals-rare/BirdLife International. (n.d.). The Adjutant Army: an all-female campaign for an Endangered stork. BirdLife. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/adjutant-army-all-female-campaign-endangered-storkLal, N. (2020, November 8). The army of women saving India’s storks. India News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/11/8/meet-the-hargila-army-a-battalion-of-indian-women-saving-theNath, A. (2020, February 24). Saving India’s storks: How smelly pests became a point of pride. The Christian Science Monitor. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2020/0224/Saving-India-s-storks-How-smelly-pests-became-a-point-of-pride

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