Bird Photographer of the Year received some breath-taking images in 2019. Some of these images highlighted incredible individual conservation stories such as this photograph of a Greater Adjutant Stork taken by Carla Rhodes from the United States of America. In this article Carla shares her story and shines the light on the plight of the species.
In September 2018, I travelled to the state of Assam in Northeast India in the hope of exploring India’s plethora of wildlife. While en route to Manas National Park, I saw a huge, striking bird standing near the roadside. It was a towering sight at almost 5 feet tall; I was so taken by its appearance I asked the driver to pull over so I could have a better look. It had piercing blue eyes, an electric yellow elongated neck fashioned with a neck pouch, long legs which moved with a military gait and spindly, sparse black hairs atop its almost bald, prehistoric-like head. I was told it was an endangered Greater Adjutant Stork.
Out of the 19 species of storks in the world, the Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius is the rarest and most endangered. The Zoological Society of London classified the bird as an Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species in 2014, meaning it is close to extinction. Additionally, they’ve included Greater Adjutants as one of the 100 Rarest Birds with ‘low conservation attention.’ In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimated only 800-1200 individuals were left in the world, firmly cementing their status as endangered with a decreasing population.
Intrigued by this giant bird that previously I’d never heard of, I excitedly asked where I could see more. A few days later, I was taken to the last place I expected to see a mass population of endangered birds: the sprawling Boragaon Landfill, which has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant Storks in the world. Located in the city of Guwahati, the expanding and encroaching landfill borders the Deepor Beel wetland (a Ramsar Convention Wetland of International Importance), causing pollution and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. The wetland previously covered 4,000 hectares but has shrunk to an alarming 500 hectares.
Greater Adjutant Storks are scavengers and are naturally attracted to the atrocity that is the Boragaon Landfill. As a result of their natural predilections, 26 storks died in a mass mortality event in the bordering Deepor Beel Wetland in 2018. This was a considerable dent in the Greater Adjutant’s declining population. The cause? Unknown, although the culprit was assumed to be the adjacent Boragaon Landfill.
In addition to poisoning, populations of Greater Adjutants are under threat from the destruction of surrounding natural wetlands and loss of nesting trees; in the past these were often cut down on private property, partly because the birds are ‘messy’, but also because of negative cultural views. Locals refer to them as ‘Hargilas,’ which means "swallower of bones" in Sanskrit. Often considered culturally as dirty, unclean scavenging birds, Greater Adjutants evoke local superstitions which suggest that the appearance of ‘Hargilas’ signifies bad omens. None of this has helped the plight of their declining population.
Part of the Brahmaputra Valley, Assam provides one of only two breeding areas in the world for Greater Adjutant Storks - the other is located in Cambodia. Harbouring more than 80% of the Greater Adjutant’s global population, Assam is the last stronghold of this endangered species. Luckily, also residing in Assam is the Greater Adjutants’ inspirational saviour: Whitley Fund for Nature Award-winning biologist Purnima Devi Barman. She’s leading a successful local community-based conservation effort to save the Greater Adjutants through inspiration, education, and female empowerment. Her grassroots community-based effort - The Hargila Army – comprises women from the local villages of Dadara, Pasariya, and Singimari. It’s a powerful, inspiring conservation initiative to save the Greater Adjutant Storks.
In rural Assamese households, women play decisive roles, which mean they have the potential to stop their families cutting down Greater Adjutants’ nesting trees on their properties. And indeed they have done this with great success! According to Barman, no nesting trees have been cut down locally since 2010, due to the conservation efforts of The Hargila Army. Some villagers have taken things a step further and installed nets below the nesting trees to save any fledglings that may fall.
However, their efforts aren’t only focused on nesting trees, but also on cultural and religious programmes (for example locals have added prayers to their hymns focusing on the safety of the storks) and traditional weavings. The Hargila Army has started weaving Greater Adjutant motifs into their traditional beautiful Assamese textiles, thereby further championing and communicating the conservation movement to save them. In areas where nesting trees are sparse, Barman has installed bamboo nesting platforms, which some Greater Adjutants have used with great success.
Local views towards this misunderstood bird are shifting thanks to Barman’s hard work. Formerly seen as large, dirty pests, villagers now look upon the Greater Adjutant with respect and admiration. If a Greater Adjutant decides to nest in one of their trees, the owner is now imbued with a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility at being chosen by this unique, endangered bird.
With fewer than 800-1200 Greater Adjutants left in the world, the time to help and bring worldwide attention to these birds is now, before their numbers continue to plummet. Purnima Devi Barman is a perfect example of someone whose local influence has spread and created worldwide conservation ripples. You can learn more about Barman’s Greater Adjutant Conservation Project through Aaranyak, a local non-profit organization fostering conservation of biodiversity in Northeast India. Here’s the link - https://www.aaranyak.org/
Please do get in touch with Rob Read of BPOTY directly (email@example.com) if you would like to donate to this project and help Purnima and her Hargila Army in their struggle to save this critically endangered species.