A Biologist’s Army of Women and Their Quest to Rescue an Outlandish Bird

Ten years ago, as a PhD student of Wildlife Biology, biologist Purnima Devi Barman came to the town of Dadara in the Kamrup district of Assam, which set her wondering about the utility of her doctoral degree. She saw a person chopping down a tree that nested several adult Greater Adjutant Storks and their young ones. As the tree fell, so do did all of the birds. Barman questioned the people about their decision to cut the tree. She was mocked by them and called an “agent of Hargila”.

Over the next decade, Barman would go on to truly found an army of women and become an agent of the Hargila.

The Greater Adjutant of the Stork family is a huge bird standing around a metre-and-a-half in height but numbering less than 1,500 currently. Once found in thousands across Southeast Asia, now the state of Assam in the northeastern part of India remains the only stronghold for the imposing prehistoric-looking bird.

Locally called Hargila, meaning “swallower of bones”, the bird, however, for a long time has been considered to be a sign of ill omen and carrier of diseases because of its messy habitats and scavenging dietary habits. This was the reason that trees with nests of these birds were felled by the owners.

But Barman decided to have none of it.

As a part of her process to conserve the Hargila, Purnima Devi Barman formed her group of women called the ‘Hargila army’. In her own words, the Hargila army means “protector of trees” and “protector of birds”. Initially, she was unsure about what she could exactly do but she believed that women could play a significant role in environmental conservation.

She began by inviting women to culinary competitions, where she would talk to them about the importance of the Hargila and the need to protect the species. The army now organises cultural events where singing, dancing, textile weaving, mask-making, mehendi art etc around themes based on the Hargila take place. The motif of the bird is ever-present at these events, be in the literature or the iconography in the textiles and artworks. Therefore, we see gamusas (a red and white piece of traditional Assamese textile), mekhela sadors (Assamese traditional dress) and cloth bags with images of the bird, made by the weaver women part of the army. By making the bird a part of such celebrations, Barman attempts to include it in the life, tradition and the culture of the women. She has succeeded to a great extent.

As one woman says in a recently released film on Hargila by the Cornell Lab of Orithnology, “We have to protect these birds as we do our children.”

It is endearing to watch how Barman herself cares for these birdlings and treats them like human children. She organises “Happy Hatching” ceremonies for birds that get hatched, much in the line of birthday parties, and baby showers, complete with gatherings of her collective of women who also offer prayers for the newborns and for a safe breeding season.

Whenever a baby bird falls down from its nest and Barman is called for rescue, she cradles it herself and takes it to a wildlife rescue centre. After the injured bird is treated, she releases it into the wild, wishing it “best of luck”. Similarly, she is devastated at the death of any bird due to unnatural reasons such as electrocution, and ensures the dead bird is respected even in death. The Hargila army also often don headgears resembling the head of the stork while performing songs and dances, as if embodying the bird itself, and drawing parallels between the rejection that both the birds and women face in human society.

Purnima Devi Barman and women from the Hargila army. Source: RoundGlass | Sustain

Such human-like treatment of the birds on Barman’s part does not feel strange when one watches the Cornell film. It shows how the lives of these gigantic storks, perched on the top of tall trees, are not completely different or far-flung from human ones. Every day, they fly several kilometres from their nesting grounds to one of the biggest dumping sites in Guwahati in order to scavenge waste. They have been increasingly needing to do this because human activities have restricted their feeding in the wetlands.

But the storks are not alone in their scavenging. Hundreds of people, in their own struggle for survival also flock to this site to collect things that are recyclable. As can be witnessed, women and children form a great part of the human numbers.

The birds do not let the Cornell photographer, Gerrit Vyn, get anywhere near them and he fails in his attempts to camouflage. Ironically, they have no problem in letting the working people get even within arm’s length to them – as if recognising their human counterparts in terms of being ostracised in their own societies.

Also read: From a New Bird to a Community Reserve, Arunachal’s Bugun Tribe Sets Example

Besides women, Barman also includes children in her efforts. She educates them through songs whose lyrics talk not only about their magnificence and environmental significance, but also how they have their own families and are a pride of Assam.

Currently, with the issue of climate change becoming more and more serious, there has been a greater recognition of the fact that humans have to find the conserve the natural environment as it is. Ecofeminism or the branch of feminism that underlines the importance of the role of women in the protection of the natural environment is an important part of the global environmentalism movement. Barman understood that if she had to serve the Greater Adjutant Stork, she had to undertake a more humanistic effort and include women and children.

The passion that Barman has for her mission to save the Greater Adjutant Stork is clear upfront. But perhaps what can be learnt from her approach is how to be more inclusive in our environmentalism and to understand the roles that the neglected – human and non-human – play. 

Deeplakshmi Saikia is a PhD scholar of Art History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Featured image: Scavengers, surrounded by a flock of Greater Adjutant birds, collect plastic for recycling at a dump site on World Environment Day in Guwahati, June 5, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Utpal Baruah/Files