Purnima Barman works with communities to protect a scruffy, endangered stork in Assam

Village residents lovingly call her hargila baido, or the bone-swallower’s sister

Updated - December 30, 2017 06:33 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2017 04:18 pm IST

 Purnima Barman has incorporated stork characters in Durga Puja processions and introduced the bird into folk songs.

Purnima Barman has incorporated stork characters in Durga Puja processions and introduced the bird into folk songs.

Twice a week, wildlife biologist Purnima Barman clambers up an 80-foot ladder to a bamboo platform. Here, she sits for hours on end, to observe the odd-looking birds that have given her life new meaning: hargila — the bone-swallowers.

This Assamese name for the greater adjutant stork is spot on: the five-foot-tall birds are carrion-feeders, often leaving smelly droppings under their nesting trees. The 1.5 metre-tall scavengers are no great lookers either: their long beaks are a dirty beige, they have stray tufts of hair on their naked scalps, and the wrinkled skin on their neck drops into a pendulous pouch.

Once common across wetlands in south-east Asia, only around 1,200 of these birds remain today. About 800 of them reside in Assam, with 150 pairs in Dadara and Pacharia villages alone.

It was in her grandmother’s paddies in Assam’s Pub Mazir Gaon village that a six-year-old Purnima first saw the hargila .

Out of a comfort zone

What began three decades ago as a fascination is now a passion that has fuelled ground-breaking work to protect the endangered storks. This won her the prestigious 2017 Whitley Award, known as the Green Oscar, in May this year; Purnima is also one of the 32 nominees for the 2018 Indianapolis Prize, a leading animal conservation award.

But the journey has not been an easy one, says Purnima, who works with Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak. She knew it was crucial to work with local communities when she saw a resident, unable to bear the stench of bird droppings in his courtyard, cut down a nesting tree. Stork chicks fell from their nests, but he would not stop.

“I realised it was unfair to blame the residents. No one knew why the hargila should be protected. This had to change.” Giving up her doctoral research on the birds, Purnima began engaging with the locals to increase awareness about the need to protect nesting trees. Stepping out of her comfort zone, she addressed public gatherings. “I clean up my daughters’ mess at home, just like you. Could you see the hargila as your children, and clean up after them,” she requested.

Knowing the local pulse, she began weaving the hargila into regional traditions. Purnima incorporated stork characters in Durga puja processions and introduced the bird into folk songs. She supplied yarns and looms to help housewives weave gamochas (traditional cotton towels) with hargila motifs.

Women are key

Women have been a crucial component of her programmes. “I believe in women’s empowerment because they are always left behind, especially in villages,” says the 37-year-old.

But being a woman in this field is challenging, says Purnima. “I would come back late from fieldwork. My parents were upset because the neighbours were unhappy. Convincing my parents was a big challenge.” Now her parents are her biggest strength, as is her husband, also a wildlife biologist. But they still worry about her climbing 80-foot-ladders, she laughs. Though some conservationists laughed away her efforts at working with communities, this changed with the Green Oscar, she says. “It has also opened doors to policy makers and other communities in Assam,” Purnima says.

Along with studying hargila behaviour atop her bamboo platforms, Purnima conducts awareness classes for students and takes part in stork rescue and rehabilitation. Four months ago, she experimented with the first artificial bamboo platform, and a hargila pair has just begun using it to build a nest. Her plans include trying to get government support to install more such artificial platforms, help meet the medical expenses of ageing residents who protect nests, and expand her hargila army.

“I may get a Green Oscar but the battle will never end,” says Purnima, who village residents lovingly call hargila baido , or the bone-swallower’s sister. “This is a life-long commitment.”

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