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Adjutant’s last stand

Battle for survival Adjutant storks at a huge garbage dump near the Dipor Bil lake in Guwahati.

Battle for survival Adjutant storks at a huge garbage dump near the Dipor Bil lake in Guwahati.  

Chasing the stork by that name to Guwahati, one of the last havens of these birds in India

Sometimes, beautiful and ugly are two sides of the same coin. Victorian high fashion accessories came from one of the most “disgusting-looking animals” that wear a white collar ruff at the base of their necks which, along with their inflatable neck pouch, turn bright orange in the breeding season. Tippets, boas and victorines, the rage of France and England once and displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, were sourced from the adjutant stork, a byword for ugliness, that stalked the streets and rooftops of Calcutta till 1900. They disappeared thereafter. This endangered species were named for the “military” quality of their awkward stride.

The brand name of the ruff was Commercolly, after Kumarkhali, an upazila in the Shilaidaha area, now in Bangladesh, where Tagore wrote some memorable verse. In Bengali, the adjutant stork is known as hargila — literally “bone swallower”, a word used to describe a tall, gaunt person.

I saw the birds for the first time in old illustrations of Calcutta, their stomping grounds being Fort William, Government House (today’s Raj Bhavan) and other landmarks of Dalhousie Square such as the Town Hall and Writers’ Buildings. Silhouetted against the skyline like grotesque statues, they stood on the terraces of the Government House and Spence’s Hotel, the city’s first luxury hotel, winged around like pterodactyls.

Flying high

Sarah Amherst, daughter of Governor-General William Pitt Amherst (1823-1828), had left behind drawings of her Calcutta residence and comical pen pictures of these birds.

“They are so useful as scavengers that there is a fine for killing them,” she writes. “However in the Fort where they abound, the young cadets play them sad tricks, such as throwing out a leg of mutton tied to a large stone, so that when the adjutant has gobbled it up, he finds himself anchored... and there is a story that to satisfy Lord Hastings’ own eyes, a calf’s leg with an iron shoe on the hoof was thrown out and immediately swallowed whole by an adjutant, they are so greedy…”

Sometimes, they exploded when they swallowed whole marrow bones stuffed with gunpowder by raw cadets.

Two adjutant storks with giant bills facing each other figure prominently in what was once the coat of arms of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. The date of award of the coat of arms was 1896. The Latin words on it read: Per ardua stabilis esto (“Be firm through difficulties”).

It is recently that I caught sight of the logo above one of the many entrances of the New Market (Stuart Hogg Market of yore), but a couple of years ago, I had heard from artist Sanat Kar that the Corporation’s adjutant birds had survived on Alimuddin Street. Sure enough, the cast iron logos were there — double discs with the mirror-image storks in both — a simple but smart design.

In 2018, I had the good fortune of sighting the storks in Guwahati. I knew that Assam was one of the last havens of the adjutant stork in India. Luckily, the local guide, Prabin Kutum, was an enthusiastic young man, and when I told him I was interested in the birds, he drove me to a huge garbage dump which shares its boundaries with a freshwater lake named Dipor Bil, listed as a Ramsar site for conservation in November 2002.

It was close to sunset, and a distant railway bridge spanned the water body. Our jeep passed a couple of humongous sheds and, at last, we faced the garbage dump encircled by green hills. It emanated a deeply earthy, not unpleasant, odour. Cows grazed and flocks of snow-white cattle egrets flitted around. A couple of kites were trying to boss around. Then I noticed a huge bird flapping its wings as it soared on thermals. It had something distinctly Jurassic about its appearance, and what with the orange sac hanging from its orange neck, it looked quite obscene, like some avian yahoo that Jonathan Swift could have created.

Indeed, it was the greater adjutant stork and they thrived here, on the dump, on offal and carrion, performing their scavenger role. There was an entire colony of them and they stood about stock still, fluttered their wings, or raised their huge bills clattering them almost like castanets. In these dire times, I can’t help but recall the storks and the Latin tag associated with them: Per ardua stabilis esto.

soumitra.soumitradas@gmail.com

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 11:44:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/adjutants-last-stand/article31431719.ece

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