Beautiful People Environment

Adjudicating for adjutant storks

The five-foot-tall birds with military bearing are not the shy kind. Preferring the company of humans to other wild creatures, they congregate in gardens to raise their young. But these house guests have disgusting habits, and aren’t handsome in the traditional sense. The adults rummage through garbage dumps, looking for any juicy rank morsel. A few hair-like feathers stick out of their bald heads while a pendulous pink pouch wobbles at the base of their bare vulture-like necks. Not the looks that make you go “awww.”

Bird roosting areas stink from the watery droppings. But when the birds are enormous scavengers, producing prodigious quantities of poop, the stench is worse. Even if you clean up regularly for the four to five months it takes the chicks to fledge, neighbours can stop being congenial. So who’d blame you if you shoo the birds away with stones before they grew possessive of the large tree at the end of your garden? If that doesn’t deter them, you may even think of axing the tree. Even more so if it was laden with 8 to 10 nests.

Suppose someone were to tell you that the numbers of these birds have fallen so sharply that the ones living in your village are a few of the last left. Would you consider living with their funky smell despite your vigorous attempts to clean the yard every day? This is just what residents of two Assamese villages did.

Not just academic

Greater adjutant storks once strutted through marshes and nested in villages across much of India and Southeast Asia. Now, they’ve disappeared from most of these countries, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that between 1,200 and 1,800 survive.

The species is the world’s most endangered stork. Two-thirds of the global population live in Assam, where they are called hargila — bone swallower.

About 140 pairs raise their chicks in two Assamese villages, Dadara and Pacharia, across the Brahmaputra from Guwahati. Although the villagers had put up with the storks until now, when Purnima Devi Barman from the Assamese NGO Aaranyak visited them first in 2009, their patience was running low.

Barman fell in love with these birds when, as a child, she saw them standing like hunched old men in her grandfather’s fields. For her Ph.D, she chose the species as her subject, but soon abandoned it for a much more important endeavour — securing the birds’ future. The easy way is to pay families to not cut the nesting trees. But Barman chose the harder route — helping communities take pride in the birds.

But how do you run a PR campaign for a creature that neither aces in the looks department nor can sing to save its life? And one that stinks and creates a mess to boot?

In her first interactions with villagers, she heard them out — the birds pooped, the birds puked, the birds brought filth from the dumps. It wasn’t the smell alone. They probably spread diseases. Then, when she cranked out her talk on the sad plight of the storks, the residents were shocked. They didn’t know the last survivors of this lot had made their home amongst them.

Through cooking and handicraft competitions, she reached out to the women who did all the cleaning and took household decisions. Who cleans up the mess children make, she asked. Just as parents tidy up after their offspring, so too must the residents sweep up after the birds. Her words hit home.

The women now weave gamocha , the traditional Assamese scarf, and tablecloths with an adjutant stork motif — the design somehow succeeds in making the bird, complete with dewlap, more presentable. But it is much more than a symbol; it has become part of the family. Many of the stork chicks are named after children in whose yard they lived. The women perform traditional rituals at the start of the breeding season to bless the storks’ reproductive labours.

Barman instituted scholarships and worked with the schools where children from these villages studied. Her team, often donning stork masks, performed street plays to raise awareness. For Barman’s efforts, the villagers gave her a nickname — hargila baido , sister of the adjutant stork — and she called her group of 70 converts the ‘ hargila army’. A popular Assamese actor, Prastuti Parashar, felicitated families who hosted adjutant stork nests, the recognition and celebrity value making the people proud of their birds and themselves.

An awakening bureaucracy

Clumsy adjutant stork chicks often tumble out of their treetop nests. Even if they aren’t injured, their chances of survival without care are nil. Although officialdom hadn’t done anything to protect greater adjutant storks in these villages earlier, it’s got in on the act now.

The district’s police vehicles ferry these young to the Forest Department-run Assam State Zoo where veterinarians treat and rear them. Once they are fit and old enough, they are released at an unsightly open-air garbage dump outside Guwahati to join others of their feather. The residents now spread nets below the trees to catch falling chicks thanks to which the chick mortality rate has dropped.

From 2010 onwards, a year after the programme began, villagers haven’t felled one nesting tree, determined not to let the greater adjutant storks go extinct. Barman now hopes to expand her campaign to other villages.

No one seems to have a problem with the foul smell of the hunched, long-legged bone-swallowers any more. The villages and Barman have won numerous awards in the process. In May, Barman won the Whitley Award (set up by the Whitley Fund for Nature) for helping Assamese villagers turn an anosmic nose to the avian doings in their vicinity.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 3:19:34 pm |