While traffic jams in a city like Guwahati are commonplace, last year — a day before Diwali — the cause for a hold-up in GS Road was an unexpected one: a huge, gangly bird, seemingly lost among the din of cars and people as it tried to make sense of its new surroundings.
Before the concerned authorities could come rescue it, the bird — an endangered species called the Greater Adjutant Stork, locally known as the Hargilla — took off itself. However, for the stork, adapting to changing environs is something it has been compelled to do over the last few decades. As its natural habitat — wetlands (or beels) — disappear, the stork has taken to living in garbage dumps which dot the city of Guwahati, the biggest one behind the Guwahati Medical College.
Ignored for years, recent media reports have extensively covered conservation efforts to protect Assam’s “ugly old bird” — at a height of five feet, with an eight-foot wing span, reports show that out of the 1,200 Hargillas in the world, about 800 are in Assam. It features in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species — in 1988, it was “threatened” but from 1994, it has been considered “endangered”. The decline goes back to the first half of the 20th century — but the bird can still be spotted parts of Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam — and India, of course (mostly Assam and Bihar).
For long, villagers in Assam would shun it, but today, conservation efforts by local organisations and activists (particularly wildlife biologist Purnima Devi Barman) have changed the stork’s fate. A recent survey done in Guwahati only last week by conservation society Early Birds, the Hargilla population was pegged at 220. “It is a stable figure but does not take away from the fact that where birds were seen ten or twelve years back, not a single one could be traced in those areas,” says Moloy Barua, President, Early Birds.
The organisation has been doing bird surveys of the Hargilla for 18 years now. In 2002, they recorded 287 birds (the highest) and in 2010, the number dwindled to 113 (the lowest). However, their survey is limited to Guwahati and its outskirts — even though other parts of Assam such as Barpeta, Nagaon, Jorhat, Majuli and even Kaziranga have storks, too.
The Hargilla is a wetland bird — but over the years, the loss of their natural habitat has compelled them to adapt to living in other kinds. “And they head mostly to garbage dumps. Most water bodies are polluted, most don’t have any fish. Many ponds in Assam have now been filled up. At one point Guwahati itself had 120 pukhuris (ponds),” says Baruah. Over the years, the Hargilla (which literally translates to “the one who swallows of bones” in Assamese) had earned the reputation of being the ugly scavenger bird, who lives off rotten things.
In villages in Assam, where Hargillas would nest on individual trees, residents would cut them off to chase the bird away, fearing it to be a bad omen. That’s when Assamese wildlife biologist Purnima Devi Barman came into the picture. Barman taught the residents of Dodoriya, Pasariya, and Singimari villages in the Kamrup district for over eight years to “love” the bird. Today, for those villages, the Hargilla is symbol of pride: a reality made possible by an all-women conservation army led by Barman, who recently won the prestigious Whitley Award, also known as the Green Oscar.
The women — trained by Barman — spread awareness by weaving Hargilla patterns on the traditonal gamusas, singing hymns dedicated to the bird, but most important of all, they influence villagers to stop cutting trees where the birds nest.
Apart from wetland loss, another reason Hargillas are losing their habitat is surprisingly a social one: division of property. Says Baruah “Many Hargillas live on trees owned by individual families. Property divisions lead to fragmentation of family lands. A stork needs to nest in a big forest with a lot of bamboo trees. But as plots of land become smaller, so do options for a stork to nest.”
As a result they end up going to garbage dumps. “Often over there, they pick up poisonous things to eat and then die. Sometimes, they are killed by dumpster accidents too. The drivers don’t care about who/what they are running into — they just go to dump garbage,” says Baruah.
Baruah’s survey, which is in its eighteenth year now, takes place around September every year. “We usually divide our team into twos. And identify areas in Guwahati which we feel might be occupied by the birds,” he says, “The Hargilla is a big bird — so it is easy to spot, but we carry our binoculars too.” While Baruah says the numbers keep fluctuating as the birds move around often, he expresses his wish to carry out the survey in other parts of Assam too.
On the other hand, Barman, who is associated with wildlife conservation NGO Aranyak, stresses the need for more “scientific” surveys to determine the actual number of Hargillas. “The survey should be done in both breeding /non-breeding areas, and during December to January when the new babies are born,” she says, “It is difficult to pinpoint at a number otherwise.”
Despite the success stories, Barman believes the only way to combat the fast loss of habitat is a move that involves the government stopping (construction) companies from filling up the beels/ wetlands.
According to her, Hargilla conversation has come a long way since 2008 when she first learnt of an entire colony of birds that had lost their homes due to tree felling. “Today, in the same area, not even one tree is cut. They practically revere the bird today. The change in attitude is quite something. And all credit goes to the villagers. Otherwise, aren’t only rhinos and tigers considered glamorous enough to save?” asks Barman.