Hargila Baideu has come,” the children yell gleefully when Purnima Devi Barman drives into Dadara village in Assam’s Kamrup district, 40 km west of Guwahati. Barman is fondly called Hargila Baideu, or Stork Sister, for her conservation initiatives for the endangered Greater Adjutant Storks.
Three non-descript villages in the district are the breeding ground of half of the world’s 1,200 Greater Adjutant Storks. Once found across east and north India and in south and south-east Asian countries, they are now confined to Assam, Bihar and Cambodia. Constant felling of trees has pushed the birds to the brink of extinction.
Not just the storks, when the migratory Amur Falcons are killed in dozens in parts of the north-east during flight from Siberia to South Africa, locals here try to ensure that the birds are safe, thanks to Barman, 37. A zoologist, she quit her job as a college teacher and now devotes herself to conservation.
It started in early 2009 when Aaranyak, a society for biodiversity conservation, took up an initiative for the conservation of the storks and entrusted Barman with creating awareness among locals. “In 2009, I got a call from a friend who said that I had received a Conservation Leadership award for my work to protect the storks. The recognition egged me on to devote myself to the project,” says Barman.
She organises awareness campaigns in Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari villages through posters, banners, street plays, etc. She motivates the locals saying that the bird is their asset and they should protect it.
A Great Adjutant may weigh up to 6-8 kg. They nest in tall trees, which can support several nests. They hunt fish and small prey, and scavenge at garbage dumps. The birds were once unwelcome in human habitats as their feeding habits create a stench at the base of their nesting trees.
“Nests are also blown away by strong winds in February and March, injuring and killing the chicks. When a bird falls and gets injured, we inform Purnima. She sends the birds to the Guwahati Zoo with help from the police,” says Dulal Das, a local.
“It was only after an awareness programme that Hargila Baideu organised that we realised how important the storks are. We love them, they are our assets. We are proud that they have made our village their home,” says Damayanti Das, a conservator in Dadara.
“Earlier, some people hunted the birds for their meat. They cannot do this now as they will be chased away by the villagers,” says Subodh Saikia, another conservationist. Encroachment of wetlands, he says, is a threat to the storks.
Police help in the birds’ conservation. “We motivate people and ensure the rescue and treatment of the injured chicks,” says Partha Sarathi Mahanta, former district police chief. “Without community involvement, conservation of the bird is not possible. It felt good when a group of wildlife activists from Germany spoke highly about the conservation initiatives of our people.”
With 171 nests according to the last count, these three villages make the largest nesting colony of these birds in the world. “Locals have shown that this once-doomed species can still be saved,” says Barman.