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Abdul Gani
Date of Publish: 2016-05-06

( Journalist Abdul Gani has won the prestigious Laadli Media & Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2015-16 in the Web/Best Feature/English category for this feature first published in our magazine on May 6, 2016 )

When all becomes one

Hargila Army is leading the way for conservation of the endangered greater adjutant stork in Assam’s Kamrup district

Rapid industrialisation, tardy implementation of law, lack of public awareness and a thriving illegal market for animal body parts have led to a surge in wildlife-related crimes like never before across the country. The most vulnerable to these crimes are the rare species of birds and animals.

In Assam too, such crimes are rising. Every other day, news of rhino poaching emerges from the Kaziranga National Park. Many times, the poachers are reportedly led by some miscreants among the locals.

And yet, there is succour, that not all is lost. That there still are people who feel they should save the wildlife of their area.

Meet this bunch of women – most of them unlettered – from Dadara, Pachoria and Singimari village in the State’s Kamrup district who have set up an example in wildlife conservation for the people of the State to emulate.

Since 2015, these women have taken it upon themselves to conserve the greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos Dubius), declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Half the global population of the stork variety, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, is said to found in that area of the district.

“We have realized the value of this bird species. It is very important to our eco-system. So we are working to increase its population. We now regard them as our family members,” Pratibha Das, the president of the conservation group tells Nezine.

The group consists of 70 women and it calls itself Hargila Army. Greater adjutant stork is locally known as Hargila.

According to the latest survey of IUCN, there are less than 1,200 greater adjutant storks in the world out of which around 800 birds are found in Assam and at least 156 in Bihar besides around 200 spotted in Cambodia.

Das says villagers used to cut the trees where the birds’ made their nests to shelter their chicks due to lack of awareness and superstitions. As a result, many new-born chicks died.

“Earlier, the villagers did not realize the importance of the bird. Many thought that it brought ill luck. But now, we are more aware and everybody in the village is working for the conservation of not just the greater adjutant storks but for other birds and animals as well,” she adds.

The credit for this transformation in the villagers goes to Purnima Devi Barman, a conservationist biologist. She visited the village as a student to do her PhD on the species in 2008.

Barman was taken aback on seeing the plight of the bird and decided to work for its conservation. “The scenario was pathetic in 2008. The villagers did not want to see the birds in their area. They thought of it as a carnivorous bird, and would bring carcass and other rotten stuff. This led them to cut the trees where they used to build nests,” relates Barman.

It was a tough mission for Barman to make the villagers understand the importance of the greater adjutant storks. “The villagers initially reacted angrily when I suggested their conservation to them. I then decided to take the women folk into confidence. I gathered the village women and shared my views with them. I also conducted several games and competitions like cooking among the girls and women to win their confidence. I wanted to make them feel that these birds are their own,” says Barman, associated with a well-known wildlife conservation organization, Aranyak.

Barman points out that though the bird is protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, its breeding areas are not protected. The greater adjutant stork only breeds in private land. She claims, from 2010 onwards, not a single tree has been cut in that locality.

“In 2006-07, we found that there were only 15 nests but in 2015, when we did a survey, we found 171 nests. This itself tells the dedication of the villagers and I’m extremely happy with the result,” she says.

Now, the village women also organize various programmes around the bird’s conservation needs and sing community songs to make people aware of nature.

“We have made it a habit to make the greater adjutant stork a part of our festivals and celebrations. I have also composed a song which describes the story of storks and also the mission initiated by Purnima baideo. We sing community songs at naam ghar (the community prayer hall) during festivals,” says Charu Das, another member of the Hargila Army.

The local women have also crafted special gamochas (traditional Assamese hand woven towel) that feature the stork as a motif. “This is also a means of creating awareness among the people and also the visitors who come to our village. We feel proud to be a part of this noble mission. We also want the people of other parts of the State to also do something for the wildlife and the environment before it is too late,” adds Das.

Proud of the feeling of ownership that the villagers now have for the bird, Barman thanks the Kamrup district administration and the forest department for their help in her mission.

Photo and text - Abdul Gani

(Abdul Gani is a Guwahati-based journalist and can be reached at ganighy@gmail.com)

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