Mamoni Malakar was the first to see it. Besides herself with excitement, the 31-year-old resident of Dadara village in Assam’s Kamrup district dialled her mentor Purnima Devi Barman. In September 2017, along with Barman — a wildlife biologist— Malakar had begun an experiment. It was a makeshift nest, put together with bamboo and branches of the kodom tree, to assist the birth of a tiny baby bird.
It was the Greater Adjutant Stork (GAS), or Hargila, as it is known in Assamese — “endangered” as per International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and “ignored” by people. The ungainly Hargila — with its bald head and massive pouch on its neck, living off garbage dumps — was always considered a bad omen.
But all changed when Barman — associated with wildlife NGO Aaranyak — took it upon herself to save the bird. The result is a group of village women committed to the cause of protecting and conserving the endangered “ugly” bird, and an affectionate epithet for Barman: “Hargila baideo” or ‘Stork sister’.
In 2017, Barman begun an experiment to artificially breed the Hargila — another step in her relentless campaign for the stork. The group’s first attempt failed. But in November 2018, a young chick was born. Nearly five months later, there was good news — and Malakar was the first to see it.
The baby bird had taken flight.
A SUCCESS STORY TURNS TRAGIC
Nearly a year later, following Barman’s method, a pair of Greater Adjutant Storks was born in the Guwahati zoo — arguably the first instance of the bird being artificially bred in a zoo, as confirmed by the Assam State Zoo Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Tejas Mariswamy.
Acknowledging the success, Cathy King, chair of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and long legged water bird specialist, said in a statement, “Although Greater Adjutant Storks have been kept in zoos throughout the world, they have not successfully bred until now. The captive breeding of this species at Guwahati Zoo is a great contribution to the conservation of this endangered species. This breeding could only occur if the birds have a suitable environment and good care.”
Captive breeding of other stork species have successfully taken place in the past. The population of milky stork, found mainly in Southeast Asia, was revived through captive breeding in Zoo Negara in Malaysia.
The Greater Adjutant Stork project is a collaboration between NGO Aaranyak and the Assam State Zoo. “The fact that we were successful in the zoo shows that captive breeding of these birds is possible, which augurs very well for their population in future,” says Barman.
However, the euphoria was short-lived. On January 17, both chicks were killed by their father. Barman says that such acts are not uncommon among storks. “This is heartbreaking for all of us. But ultimately we have to accept it as this is a natural process. We have been consulting experts like Cathy King, who told us that breeding success of the Hargila is less. More than 45% chicks die in infancy which is a major reason behind their slow population growth,” she says.
DFO Mariswamy says that despite the setback, this initiative will continue in the Assam State Zoo. “ We consider this year’s effort as a success because the chicks were born. In the first month, the chicks need to stay in their mother’s care. If they survive upto three months, we can try to hand-raise them. This is a difficult call to take actually. We don’t know what the implications will be if we remove the chicks from the nest,” he says.
‘WILL SUCCEED EVENTUALLY’
Over the years, the population of the Greater Adjutant Stork dwindled because of poisoning and habitat loss. Once found abundantly in India, now they are present only in some pockets of Assam and Bihar. Globally, the species has about 1200 individuals, out of which around 800 are found in Assam itself.
Three villages in the state’s Kamrup district, Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari, contribute almost one-third of the world’s total population of Greater Adjutant Stork in the wild. There are approximately 200 nests of Hargilas in these villages.
Being scavengers, these birds are seen eating from garbage dumps in cities. As per the latest census on these birds conducted by the Guwahati-based NGO Early Birds, there are 220 birds in Guwahati. Many historical breeding colonies were lost when their nesting trees were cut for infrastructural projects.
Barman says that she got a lot of ideas about these artificial nests from her mentor, Cathy King. “I keep asking her how to build the nest, how much food to give them. She has been my guiding light through this process,” she says.
However, the process was not easy at all. “Even after the chick is born, we have to keep supplying nesting materials. We also have to take care of the food,” she says. Malakar adds that at times they had to wait for hours under the tree to listen to any sound of the chick. “We had to update Purnima baideo regularly about the condition of the nest. We used binoculars to keep watch,” she says. As chicks falling to death from the nest is very common, the Hargila army has spread nets below the trees. Dipankar Das, a resident of Dadara who is involved in the project says, “We have spread 14 nets below the trees which have Hargila nests. The idea was that they should fall on the net rather than on the ground.”
Barman first tried artificial breeding at Dadara in 2017 when a storm felled six nesting trees .“It was more of an experiment. I wanted to see if they hatch on an artificial platform. But it did not work out because the breeding season of the birds was already underway when we erected the platform. The timing wasn’t right. Many experts were sceptical about this actually succeeding. But I didn’t lose hope because other stork species have hatched in captivity in the past. So, I had the confidence that we will succeed eventually,” she says.
The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45
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