Green Oscar for Assamese Conservationist

By Our Correspondent

Green Oscar for Assamese Conservationist

The Hargila is a huge scavenger bird, now found only in Assam where it was once hated by local people who considered it as a bad omen for its ugly look, peculiar body, foul smell and profane name that means bone swallower. But Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a local wildlife biologist has been conferred with the prestigious Whitley Gold Award which is also known as Green Oscar for large scale conservation of this dwindling bird from the brink of extinction. She also heads a huge army of village women in hundreds who protect the declining Hargila or Adjutant Stork once found in huge numbers in North East and even other parts of India, South Asia and SouthEast Asia.

Not only the number of the IUCN branded “endangered” bird has increased from a mere 450 to 1800 plus now, but also the once derided bird has become a culture symbol of Assam because of Dr Barman from Assam. She even delayed her Ph.D study to save the huge bird through her now strong 10,000 women Hargila Army. It has also provided gainful employment to ten thousand poor rural families which will soon be doubled with the lady’s tireless efforts.

The Hargila army led by Dr Barman became the driving force in safeguarding  the nests of these storks as well as rebranding the prehistoric-looking scavenger from a bad omen to a positive cultural symbol. The women became known as ‘Hargila Army’ or ‘Stork Sisters’. She tapped into the women’s nurturing side by organising “baby showers” during the storks’ breeding season, inspired by a Hindu ritual for expectant human mothers, and “happy hatching” ceremonies to commemorate the arrival of the chicks. Slowly but surely, the women began to accept the birds as part of their world. Through her pioneering efforts, she galvanized local communities to safeguard nests, protect the storks’ habitat and prevent cutting down the huge Kadam trees where the bird nests and rests.

Today, the once- maligned bird is a cultural symbol, appearing on everything from towels to  road- safety campaigns. Incidentally, the huge bird plays a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of wetlands. It consumes decaying organic matter, which help recycle nutrients and promote ecosystem health. Such was the success of the campaign that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the stork from Endangered to Near Threatened last year.

The Whitley Gold Award recognizes Dr. Barman’s exceptional impact in reversing the decline of the Hargila population. Her collaborative initiatives, in  partnership  with local wildlife NGO Aaranyak, have led to a quadrupling of the stork population, with numbers now exceeding 1,800, in what is now world’s largest breeding colony of the rarest stroke. Dr. Barman’s project focuses on community-driven conservation and aims to bolster the number of Greater Adjutant breeding pairs, with a special emphasis on empowering local women as advocates for conservation.

With a goal to double the global population of the Greater Adjutant Stork to 5,000 by 2030, Dr. Barman plans to implement scale-up  measures  across India and Cambodia, the stork’s last remaining ranges. Her initiatives include conservation education for students, as well as knowledge exchange programs between universities, aiming to raise awareness and foster a deeper understanding of biodiversity conservation.

In 2021, Barman established the Hargila Learning and Conservation Centre in a government school in Pacharia village, where hargila army members use songs, art and games to encourage children to Barman’s unwavering dedication has been recognised in India and internationally. Last year she was named World Female Ranger and in 2017. Besides receiving the prestigious Whitley award, known as the “Green Oscars”, she was also awarded India’s highest civilian honour for women – the Nari Shakti Puraskar.

Greater Adjutant Storks Profile

This bird has been described as having a “grotesque elegance”. When it soars overhead, its 8.5 ft wings can block out the sun, and when coming into land, it sets its enormous mass, including a foot-long beak, down delicately on the sand. These strokes are enormous and often stand as tall as the average woman at around 5 feet. They’re certainly ugly, but they’re also agile, humble, and intelligent.

Birds keep their genitals hidden away internally but strokes have developed analogues to show off as a symbol of their virility, one of the characteristic features, especially in males of the species. In the case of Storks, It is a familiar pink and wrinkled pouch, covered in sparse, fluffy down and swinging proudly under its chin. What’s worse is that it’s connected to the left nostril, and can therefore be inflated for maximum effect. This ventilation also allows for a sort of resonant, guttural croak to emanate from the bird. They also have one on the back of their neck, as if the front bag wasn’t enough. In the Greater adjutant, this pendulous accessory is swung back and forth as part of the mating display.

The storks eat and swallow everything including bones. Its name comes from a military term, referring to an officer who assists a higher-up in the ranks.

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle