A Biologist, an Outlandish Stork and the Army of Women Trying to Save It

Life can change in an instant, as I experienced when I first saw a large and bizarrely showy bird known as the Greater Adjutant.

It was India in 2018 in the northeastern state of Assam. I ended up there in part because of absurd circumstances where I was filmed for a reality television pilot while navigating the Himalayas in a motorized rickshaw. After crossing some of the highest and most dangerous roads in the world, including the Tanglang La Pass, I ventured into a traditional selection of endangered animals: Asian elephants, larger rhinos, western hoolock gibbons.

On the way to Guwahati, Assam’s capital, I saw a five-foot-tall bird looming near the roadside. I was so impressed by the looks that I asked the driver to pull up so I could see better. It had piercing blue eyes, an elongated, electric-yellow neck, a wobbly, inflatable neck pocket, long legs that moved with a stiff military gait, and spindle-shaped black hair on its (mostly bald) prehistoric-looking head. Little did I know that this eccentric animal – also endangered, if not famous – would change the course of my professional life.

When the driver saw how intrigued I was by the giant stork, he offered to take me to the location of the largest year-round population of larger aides in the world.

To my surprise, he led me to the extensive Boragaon landfill, a landfill that borders the Deepor Beel wetland, an ecologically important water storage basin that is threatened by pollution and interference.

When we drove to the landfill, I felt like I was entering a post-apocalyptic feverish dream: The garbage was piled higher than an apartment building in the East Village. I saw countless people, including small children, rummaging through the garbage with their bare hands. Cows grazed on medical waste and wild dogs chased each other through the piles of rubbish. Meanwhile, an excavator pushed the heap of garbage ever larger.

In the middle of this surreal scene, beside the garbage-stained cattle egrets, stood the spectacular tall aides, who circled and marched stiffly alongside the other foragers.

Upon my return from India, I found that my encounter with the major adjutants had irrevocably changed me. By then, I’d stubbornly pursued a career in New York City as a comedic ventriloquist while juggling mundane jobs. Wildlife photography was relatively new to me; I just thought it was a fun hobby. But suddenly I wanted to do conservation photography with every fiber of my being.

I quickly discovered the work of Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist who has dedicated her life to protecting major aides. Dr. Barman, the founder of the Hargila Army, a local all-female volunteer at the grassroots level, led her women’s corps to protect nesting sites, rescue fallen baby birds and educate the Assamese community about the importance of these rare and endangered scavengers.

After spending a few months with Dr. Barman corresponded, I traveled back to Assam in February 2020. Dr. Barman invited me to stay at her home in Guwahati, where she lives with her husband, who is also a wildlife biologist, and her twin teenage daughters.

During our first joint visit to the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari on the outskirts of Guwahati, Dr. Barman keeps looking at her car window at “hargilas”, the local word for larger adjutants, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for “derived”. Bone eater. “I couldn’t believe how many of the birds looked down on us from their huge nests and soared on thermals high above our heads – especially since the International Union for Conservation in 2016 estimated that only between 800 and 1,200 mature individuals were left in existence with the population in decline.

Assam is the last stronghold of this endangered species and is home to more than 80 percent of the larger aide’s world population. (The remaining population is split between Cambodia and the Indian state of Bihar.)

In the past, Dr. Barman, major aides were viewed as unsanitary nuisances and bad omens, resulting in many of their nesting trees being felled. Much of the Hargila Army’s efforts are aimed at protecting such trees.

The group’s efforts are also aimed at rehabilitating society’s perception of birds – to “bring the birds into people’s hearts, minds and cultures,” said Dr. Barman. Conservation work has long been plagued by taxonomic bias, as humans generally prefer attractive mammals with forward-facing eyes. “The more people see Hargilas as a bad omen, a disease carrier and a pest,” said Dr. Barman, “the more obsessed I am.”

The work has paid off. The local population of the larger adjutant has increased to an estimated 950 birds, up from 400 birds in 2007. The number of breeding colonies in the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari also increased over the same period – from 28 to 220 nests.

In recent years, the Hargila Army has grown to include thousands of pledged members – people who have received some level of conservation education – and around 400 women who are actively involved in leading the movement. Most of the organizers are rural housewives who help build appreciation for major aides into local traditions. They weave larger aide motifs into traditional Assamese textiles and even throw baby showers for the birds during the breeding season.

The most noticeable awareness program I witnessed was at an on-site wedding that featured likenesses of the giant bird guarding the entrance and Hargila-themed henna drawn on the hands and arms of wedding guests, including me.

Dr. Barman’s efforts have resulted in a wider sense of empowerment among the women who make up the Hargila Army. Many receive tools and training – including donated handlooms and sewing machines – that can help them generate additional income.

“It seems like our lives changed completely after we incorporated Hargila motifs into our clothing,” said a Hargila Army member named Jonali Rajbongshi, who started sewing cotton bags after receiving a new sewing machine that featured larger aides were embroidered.

We also visited the home of a woman named Pratibha Malakar, who was weaving a red and white hargila gamosa – a traditional towel-like textile – with overwhelming speed and skill.

Dr. Barman told me that their model of community preservation could easily be replicated in other parts of the world. “Women are the key and the greatest change makers,” she said. “If we train women, if we include women, we will achieve a sustainable goal.”

Awareness programs among local schools are another tactic used by the group, and I accompanied Dr. Barman on some such surprise visits. Their presentations, which include lively discussions, information brochures, educational games, and coloring pages, were held by the students on the edges of their seats.

Towards the end of my time in Assam, I accompanied Dr. Barman and her team returned to the Boragaon landfill where they ran a contact program. Children sat among the rubble, ate sweets and colored drawings of the eccentric storks.

In the middle of their presentation, I looked around and found our corner of the landfill full of laughter and happiness. It was an unexpected joyous moment: we were all brought together in such different circumstances by a remarkable woman and an endangered, if often overlooked, scavenger – the unlikely target of a fascinating and transformative conservation campaign.

Carla Rhodes is a conservation photographer who lives in the Catskills. You can follow her work on Instagram.

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