The opening paragraph in the Wikipedia entry on the greater adjutant stork contains a sentence placed in brackets stating that large numbers used to live in Asia but have since declined, “possibly due to improved sanitation”; this deceptively wholesome claim almost insultingly glosses over the fact that many thousands of them have fallen victim to something far less savory – human persecution.
Long ago, these birds were considered an asset to the regions they lived in, with authorities recognising the ecosystem service they provided though their feeding habits, ridding the land of waste and carcasses that humans simply didn’t want to deal with.
But despite their image being emblazoned into the coat of arms of Calcutta, such was their prestige, a rise in despicable practices in the name of fashion set the ball rolling in their decline to the woeful numbers we see today.
At risk of fines and imprisonment, plume collectors for the hat industry took to large-scale unregulated ambushing of the birds in their nests, disturbing their breeding cycle, discouraging them from potential nest sites, and scattering survivors to the winds.
The birds established colonies where they could; one such colony exists among the villages hunkered along the banks of the Brahmaputra, Assam, India. It is here that one lonely little girl would soon learn of their plight.
Since we have spoken to Purnima, she has been honoured with the United Nations' highest environment award - Champions of the Earth Award 2022 announced in November 2022. As she was receiving the award, the Executive Director of UNEP Inger Andersen said that this year's Champions of the Earth give us hope that our relationship with nature can be repaired. In the month of October 2022, she was also conferred the World Female Ranger Award 2022 by the international organization – How Many Elephants.
A child finds her friends
Purnima Devi Barman’s smiling face and nigh on two hundred words a minute instantly conveys how she has managed to encourage so many people to help save the Hargila stork from extinction. Hargila is the local name for the greater adjutant – it means bone swallower, referring to their preferred diet of flesh and skeleton.
Purnima begins her tale with a memory, a disrupted upbringing, intrinsic to her love of these long-legged birds.
“My father was an Army soldier, my siblings were almost the same age as me, and my mother found this very difficult, so I went to be with my grandma for around six years. I remember one day I realized that I was alone. I became very restless; for three or four days I was crying non-stop, and I didn't eat. They took me to doctors, but nobody could help me.
Then my grandma had a solution: she was a farmer so she took me to help in the fields, and that’s when I saw the storks; I didn't know at the time that this was Hargila, but they were everywhere, in the paddy fields and in the backyards. To keep me busy, my grandma asked me to count the birds, and taught me some songs, songs that will never go away. She saw how this solution to connect with nature helped me forget to be sad and I became normal. I’ve been obsessed with birds since.”
Restaurant cheats; a nighttime PhD begins
Despite expectations of a rural upbringing potentially going against her, Purnima knew that she wanted to go into higher education.
“I am from a village where this didn’t happen often at that time, but I eventually got my Masters [in Zoology]. Whilst I was doing my Masters, I was very inspired by two professors who told us about conservation, how to contribute, so I started volunteering at organizations and going birdwatching, meeting the birdwatching community. One day the professor said he was in a restaurant and had asked for chicken, but they gave him stork meat, to cheat him.
He was given Hargila meat, so that story had an impact on me. I realized I had to do something for my childhood friends, so I decided my PhD would be on them. I got a volunteer position at an NGO called Aaranyak, but by this point my parents just wanted me to get married; they love me a lot, but they said, you know you can still do all this if your husband allows it. It is tradition, I don’t blame them, it is just because they are worried about what their relatives, neighbors, and so on will think. I actually met my husband at Aaranyak, he is also a conservationist. His family members approved of my family and we were married within one month.”
But the pressure to keep the family unit going didn’t let up, and even though Purnima’s dream of a PhD was very strong, she acknowledges her lack of defiance.
“I didn't know much [about how to behave], I just did whatever they said. So, after one year of marriage I had my twin girls, and they’re amazing, but I had this big dream, Hargila was on my mind all the time. Eventually I started speaking to my mentor, my professor, again and he explained how to write my synopsis. This was in 2007, my daughters were two and a half years old, still such a priority of course, and my husband was away working in the field. Whilst the girls were sleeping, I read a lot about the storks, I would read all night and I formed my ideas for the PhD.”
Hargila nest in trees – these birds are heavy, needing specific trees to bear their weight. Those trees are handed down to successive generations as part of the land left to families, but nowadays the tree owners say they can’t manage them, citing the excrement left behind is too much, better to cut them down for construction, for furniture, fuel, and so on; once removed, they are not replaced.
Shortly after she began her PhD, an incident in the village was a pivotal moment for Purnima. Out walking with her daughters, she came across a man cutting at his tree. Knowing that Hargila needed the trees for nesting, she ran over and asked the man to stop. This was met with laughter, and the man was soon joined by others.
“I was the only lady there, and all these men surrounded me. They teased me, laughed at me. Oh, this lady, you know, she wants to save Hargila, instead why don’t you just come and join our maid and help us clean up all the mess?”
Unsettled by this crowd jeering at her, she left, but the experience rocked her and that night she could not sleep, trying to think of how she could change things around to help the birds.
“The concept of conservation is, if he changes himself, only then can we do conservation. I saw others doing their PhD on birds, always doing research, but what is the reality? What will be left for my children if we can't save these things? So, the next day, I went back with folded hands, and I addressed him as my brother, I said, ‘please accept me as your family member, I want to help clean your yard, let me help you and your brothers’. I took my daughters with me, and soon more people came, joining me.
People believe in actions not in words.
Being private property makes my work very sensitive. Because these trees are on their ancestor’s land, it is not government land. This is their private land, and here I am telling him to protect that tree. If it was a protected area I could go to the government, but my story is different. So that is why it's very challenging. But I offered to help wherever I was, I also cooked, I just offered my help to them. And soon we all became friends. People believe in actions not in words.”
Putting her PhD plans on hold, Purnima focused on building a community of stork lovers. I ask if her new friends realized that she was primarily trying to save the birds.
“At first, they didn't know anything about them, they treated them as a bad omen because this bird feeds on carrion, beef, and because of religion and lack of education this was a bad thing, which added to the challenge. Also, they knew that the bird ate garbage and made a mess, and many people are conservative so they treated this bird very badly.
So, I invited the women over to my house, and I complained to them about my daughters, how they make a lot of mess, but I don't mind; I asked them to explain to me, why, please tell me why I don't mind that they make so much mess and noise.
And they told me, ‘Because they are your daughters’. Then I’d say Hargila can also be our daughters. I explained that this bird is not going to other places, it is only choosing your trees to have their children. I kept telling them and they finally started to relate to the bird, they felt they were actually being honored by the bird.
Building that bond is so important. You cannot buy everything with money, people have to develop love for the species.”
A family becomes an army
Realizing that the key to the Hargilas’ successful conservation lay not just in promoting awareness about how the bird’s lifestyle was essential to the world, Purnima understood through her grandmother’s stories that linking an animal to cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs was a highly valuable aspect.
“One day in my community there was a Gita Bhagavad procession. I saw many people come and offer prayers. Our communities of women come to the temples and sing songs for God and make offerings, prasad, asking for things like ‘please may my daughter pass her exam’ and so on.
I joined them and I started giving offerings for the Hargila birds. I found that the women didn't mind this, because it is connected to God – so nobody can deny it. This gave me an opportunity to talk to them. Word got around that this lady comes for Hargila, and could not deny me because I was doing it all the time. And it worked!”
This was in 2010, and this growing community became her only focus. What began as a small extended family of women became a much larger group across other villages, and in 2014 the term “Hargila Army” was officially adopted.
“So many women joined! It just happened automatically” she modestly enthuses. Officially, the Army is composed solely of women, but in reality, there are many more. Yet another ingenious idea accompanies the enlisting process.
To date, there are over 10,500 women in the Hargila Army.
“We have a pledge programme. When a woman joins, she has to bring her husband and her children.” Each woman then presents information about the stork to her family so they know why she has signed up, what the storks mean to the community, and why they are important to the world.
Beautiful bone swallower
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and whilst it is understandable some would find these storks discomforting to look at, Purnima holds no such prejudices, seeing only the bird she has known almost all her life as a good, dear friend who can only ever be beautiful. But she explains that many people fear them.
“Many people thought that Hargila was a ghost! Because at night-time, they make a lot of sound and people were scared and couldn’t sleep.
The birds start building nests but people don't see what is happening at the top of the tree, but they hear the voice at night, this tak tak sound, but I explain to them it’s not a ghost. I keep telling them that Hargila has beautiful blue eyes, long beak, long legs, they are so beautiful.
They are like my daughters, they're like your own children, just imagine yourself as Hargila, and I think people start loving them.
But it’s a never-ending process, every day you have to do the same. I went to a new colony recently in another district, and there it is the same problem. But when I do the presentation to the children I go with the baby bird photos, and when they see them, oh my god! there is a beautiful connection”.
Back to school
With the Army established, Purnima’s dream of getting her PhD resurfaced, and in 2017 she felt able to return and manage the conservation work as well. She completed her thesis in 2018; but her time there was not without criticism.
When she began her work, she was once again jeered at, the stigma of the bird combined with her gender providing some unsavory source material for her contemporaries.
Their main theme was, why work with an “ugly, dirty, species” that would not bring you fame or respect?
I say I found this attitude to be anathema to the very foundations of conservation, why would anyone decide which species to study based on how it boosts the status of the person? With characteristic modesty but frank acknowledgement, she recounts the experiences, although her magnanimity causes her to decline to give specifics.
“It was always men; I don't know why. My professors in university told me that more women should come forward and do research, conservation of wildlife, but when I started working with a group of male conservationists the reality was different, they just kept putting obstacles in my way, so many instances.
I can’t say about all of them, but stupid things like, they said there was a situation and called me in but then just closed the door and started to mentally harass me. In fact, it is only because I chose the Hargila conservation movement as my mission.
As my work with communities started getting attention, they kept telling me ‘You have to do your PhD, what are you doing with these communities?’
They started taunting me and stressing me through many taunting words in Assamese language, you won’t understand them but essentially, they said I must have hit my head.
And when I was wearing my Assamese traditional clothes for day to day conservation meeting with my communities, they laughed at me a lot, saying that a conservationist doesn’t look like that, I should be wearing, you know, six pocketed jackets, something like this, and what am I going to do dressed like this.
One person also said ‘You are useless, that is why you are working for this species, everyone knows that is a useless species.’ But this was also an important part of my life, it made me so strong, this made me, I think, what I am today.”
In the same year she resumed her PhD, Purnima was the recipient of one of the conservation world’s most highly respected prizes, The Whitley Award, otherwise known as the Green Oscar.
Later that year, her homeland also recognised her outstanding contribution to the welfare of her womenfolk and the natural world by awarding her the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the highest civilian honor for women in India. I ask if, in light of this recognition, and the ensuing media attention she has garnered since, has anyone from back then ever conceded they were wrong or apologized for her treatment?
“No, no… They are still there, but, you know, they can't do anything. I have so many people with me now and people around the world supporting me, they see that I can do good. And I notice that they are also working with communities now. That they are doing this, actually, it makes me…” she tails off, but a shy giggle emerges and I can tell she is pleased with herself for changing minds; no matter if they will acknowledge her role in it.
“But I'm always worried. They wanted to stop me, but they couldn't, but I think they have stopped many other women this way. So that's why I want to bring about this women's leadership.
I am from this background but I'm doing my master's degree, and yes, I had some problems. But these women, their education does not exist and they would never get this forum in their life, they just know their home duties only. I think this all led me to realize that this women leadership is a good idea. Before, these women were not respected at all. A household wife converting herself into a conservationist?
Through the Hargila Army, we spread a message that we don’t need a special diploma or degree to be a conservationist, everyone can be a conservationist by starting our movement from our own home and our own backyard, by saving our backyard biodiversity.
As Hargila nest in a tall tree in people’s own backyard, it made me realize how important it is to save that tree. Someone may not be educated, but everyone can work together. I think it is so important to realize that they are the real heroes. They are the real changemakers.”
Fittingly, the stork symbolizes new life, new beginnings, happier times. Purnima has mobilized her Army; what does the future hold? Many of the women are weavers: “But the thing is that now they are weaving for a cause. In their life, they would never have thought that they could weave for a cause!”
They now produce all manner of clothing and other items bearing the Hargila motif that tourists can buy, also available to buy online.
She is very happy about this as weaving was at risk of becoming a lost tradition in many villages, but now this is finding new interest among the children and grandchildren of her Army. She tells me of her dream to be able to find large premises where she can set up an almost industrial-scale weaving operation, more looms, more textiles, more training programmes.
But funding is scarce, as “big species” like the rhino and the tiger seem to receive all of that attention, not that she thinks it is a competition, of course.
Purnima is now a wildlife biologist working with Aaranyak, the NGO she joined all those years ago as a volunteer. There is already a small hospital for orphaned chicks and injured birds, but she wants a larger hospital, and to employ specialized vets permanently.
In the meantime, however, they do what they can for the birds, with the deep understanding that they cannot do this without the community bond. To help this remain strong, the organization currently awards scholarships, which she wants to expand.
“I want to give our tree owners regular support every month, or scholarships every year. I want to mention that we don't encourage cash – we always give it as a scholarship, then it is meaningful, sustainable. If they received cash, and if for some reason that money is stopped, for example COVID, the tree owner could cut down the tree for money, but if we give them the same money in the form of a scholarship, this is a better way. We also have a Hargila Learning Centre in a government school where we teach children about the birds alongside the national education, and all the children are Hargila ambassadors.
Funding is a worry; but I think Hargila is now finally getting more attention. I've always been optimistic. I'm very optimistic always, but things do take my sleep sometimes, mainly urbanization.
Because of our efforts, people are saving the trees but now there is so much urbanization. But still people are saving the trees for their own children. That gives me hope. And other colonies will expand so this way we will keep going. But it's very painful to think about because we have done so many things but I'm very optimistic and we'll keep doing this every day.”
How to be Purnima
I end our chat by asking what advice would she give another lone person who sees a tree being cut down, a waterway being filled in, a nest site destroyed; where should they start?
“I think people should always see what they can save in their backyards first, because what my heart will continue to teach me is that when we save our backyards, you can protect an endangered species that way, directly, and there might be very important biodiversity there, many things which we don't know about. I always say that if we save our backyards, nature will save us.”
You can find out a lot more about the work that Purnima does with the Rewilding NGO, where she is the Programme Coordinator for India, you can also donate to her cause, or find the Hargila Army on Facebook.