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For The Greater Good

For The Greater Good

People can and do make a difference writes Purnima Devi Barman, who shares with Sanctuary readers a heartwarming and successful conservation initiative driven by local communities that have taken upon themselves the task of saving one of the world’s most endangered birds.

During the breeding season, Greater Adjutants hunt small prey, but at other times they scavenge at garbage dumps. Their ‘unpleasant’ feeding habits result in a stinking mess at the base of their nesting trees, and this had made them unpopular with the local community. Photo: Rathin Barman.

It was an early morning in March 2009 when a sudden call from one of my conservation colleagues woke me. The breathless voice at the other end of the line informed me that I had received a Conservation Leadership Award based on my initial work toward the protection of a quirky-looking bird known as the Greater Adjutant. The award and the ensuing project turned out to be a major stepping stone in my conservation career.

Once widely distributed throughout northern and eastern India and many South and Southeast Asian countries, this large stork is currently only found in Assam and Bihar in India, and in select scattered locations in Cambodia. Assam alone harbours about 70-80 per cent of the global population of the Greater Adjutant in a few nesting colonies distributed along the Brahmaputra valley. Unfortunately, many traditional nesting colonies have disappeared in the last several decades. This spectacularly distinct bird is being pushed dangerously close to extinction, yet our conservation fraternity and government departments remain unconcerned.

The most pressing problem the Greater Adjutant faces is the struggle to find a suitable nesting site. They have very specific housing demands and seek particular, tall tree species that can support several nests on each tree. Beyond that, the nesting habit of this bird is colonial; they mass nest and return to the same site year after year. Greater Adjutants mainly feed on small prey during breeding season; at other times they scavenge. Not surprisingly garbage dumps provide a buffet of choices to them that are wildly unappetising to humans. This ‘dirty’ feeding habit creates an odorous mess at the base of nesting trees. Generally, the owners of land where Greater Adjutant birds nest do what they can to get rid of the ‘troublemakers’. The birds are routinely chased away, or in a worst case scenario, the offending tree is cut down. It hardly helps that Greater Adjutants prefer to nest close to human populations. No one has quite been able to explain why.

All my life I have dreamed of working for the conservation of this globally endangered bird and that one phone call in March 2009, set me well on my way. My work with these enigmatic avians has shaped my identity and today, I am widely known as hargilla baido (stork sister).

Students from Dadara village take part in an art competition as part of the awareness drive initiated by the author and her colleagues for the conservation of the Greater Adjutant. Photo: Purnima Devi Barman.

CONSERVATION IN ACTION

Dadara and Pacharia, two small villages in the Kamrup District of Assam, have shown the world that this once-doomed species can still be saved. Just these two villages support over 140 nests each year, possibly the largest nesting colony of these birds in the world!

This colony is just about an hour’s drive from Guwahati. The village complex has several wetlands nearby and supports trees like Anthocephalus cadamba (kadam), Bombax ceiba (semul or silk cotton tree), Artocarpus lacucha (dewa), Artocarpus heterophyllus, Stereospermum chelonoides (paroli), and Alstonia scholaris (satiana or devil tree). When we arrived here for the first time in 2009, we heard endless complaints from villagers about how unhygienic the birds were and how much they increased their workload. One angry villager berated me: “They’re carnivorous and often throw live or rotten food into our backyards. The family members waste so much time cleaning the debris including their foul-smelling faeces.” The conflict appeared to peak in the months of February and March, when strong winds blow and nests topple. The fallen chicks then die of either predation or starvation and the villagers are left to clean up the mess.

With so much resentment and anger, it was difficult to even broach the topic of conservation. At first it seemed that the only answer was to pay the landowners to protect the trees, but with consistent visits to each village household, and rigorous study, another solution slowly began to emerge.

We began befriending every tree owner’s family, specially the women. We organised numerous meetings in the hamlets and took the time to understand their concerns. We started awareness programmes in the villages and focused on the importance of wildlife conservation.

Simultaneously we began motivating young people to organise conservation campaigns. They confessed that they had no idea the Greater Adjutant was so endangered and played such an important ecological role. We slowly won their support and they promised to monitor the species without disturbing their nests. We then went on to organise social gatherings for farmers to discuss the problems they face and soon they too began to lean towards the conservation of the birds. We also held separate meetings with fisherfolk and introduced them to the Greater Adjutants, their plight and their endangered status. They were shocked to discover that the birds in their backyard were found in such few locations across the world and that their villages were their last remaining stronghold.

Aware that we needed to seed the next generation with pride in the birds and introduce them to the simple conservation measures needed for the birds’ long-term survival, we chose to work with a local school, Sankardev Sishu Niketan, Dadara, where the majority of tree owners’ children studied. Over the years, we have organised several drawing competitions and environmental programmes for the children of this school and can therefore look forward to a much more responsible generation in the decades ahead.

The Chief Conservator of Forests addresses a community gathering to commend and felicitate the villagers for their contribution to conservation. The event was attended by famous Assamese actress – Prastuti Parasar and the villagers were overwhelmed by the respect and gratitude bestowed upon them. Photo: Manas BhaTtacharjee.

WOMEN, MEN, CHILDREN JOIN IN

In Assamese villages, women take most household decisions. Without a shadow of a doubt, they have played a major role in the conservation of the Greater Adjutant. Initially, in Dadara, womenfolk were shy and didn’t accompany their husbands to attend the public meetings that we held. So we responded by creating a separate module for them. We organised cooking and craft competitions and won them over with patience and gentle care. They slowly lost their inhibitions and we soon found ourselves able to sit and discuss the importance of the Greater Adjutant. We also facilitated the formation of self-help groups that set up stalls during mega-festivals held in Guwahati city, where their handicraft and home-made products could be showcased and sold.

We even approached different media houses to highlight the contribution of the villagers in the protection of these globally endangered storks. A very popular Assamese film actress, Prastuti Parasar, was roped in to felicitate the community at a public gathering. The tree owners were overwhelmed with the respect they won and this motivated them even more.

Not content, our team kept developing new avenues to support the villages. We organised field trips to introduce community members to ecological processes and even conducted a guided trip on the ‘Biodiversity Science Express Train’ where they were introduced to the diversity of wildlife found in India. A scholarship programme for children of tree owners who excelled academically and displayed initiative in working for the conservation of the Greater Adjutant Storks, was also instituted.

Since this bird breeds in private lands, the Forest Department has a limited role in its protection. Nevertheless, we involved forest officials, the custodians of wildlife by law, right from the start. Narayan Mahanta, Divisional Forest Officer of the Assam State Zoo Division, released a hand-reared bird that had been rescued when it fell from its nest. The bird was later christened Phaguni. As our story spread, several other top forest officials began visiting this breeding colony. Hirdesh Misra, then Divisional Forest Officer of North Kamrup Forest Division, S. P. Singh, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildife) and Mohan Chandra Malakar, Retired PCCF (Wildlife) and State Information Commissioner made site visits to help rally support from all quarters. Dr. M.L. Smith, senior veterinary doctor of Assam State Zoo treated Christina, a one-and-half month old chick which was handed over to him after we rescued it. This stork too was later released into the wild after two months of care in captivity. Villagers have now released several ‘nest fall’ chicks after treatment and care by the Assam State Zoo and the rescue facility of the Wildlife Trust of India. Many of these released birds have been named after local school children.

Most people imagine that the police are insensitive to wildlife conservation, but we know differently. The police is resource-rich in emergency situations and if they want to, they can be game changers for the conservation of Greater Adjutants. The Kamrup District Superintendent of Police, Partha Sarathi Mahanta, in particular, helped us in every possible way and made our mission his own. He alone released four rescued chicks that had been hand reared by a facility run by the Wildlife Trust of India. The released chicks were named Monalisa, Lulu, Saru and Rima (after the tree owner’s daughters and wife) and this simple gesture generated even more warmth and support for the birds from critical sections of local society.

The results have been most rewarding. Five years of persistent work has paid rich dividends. Today, the villagers have taken ownership of the initiative as guardians of the Greater Adjutant and keep a keen, tight vigil all through the breeding season. In fact, the women now celebrate the breeding season of the storks as they might for any family member. Without any prompting from us, the local school, Sankardev Sisu Niketan, crafted an earthen likeness of the bird and each morning the children pray for the survival and good health of the species. I wept unashamedly when I saw them do this for the first time.

We have narrated this story for the benefit of Sanctuary readers because we feel that leaving wildlife conservation to government agencies, or experts alone would be doing our mission a disservice. This, of course, is only the start. We have the proverbial miles to go before we can hope to see Greater Adjutants removed from the endangered list. But we know that day too will come and that it will be the community that will determine their future by recognising what the birds need in terms of forage from wetlands, protection during the breeding season and unity between government agencies, experts and the people who live closest to the birds. We are determined to keep the Greater Adjutant Stork on the right side of extinction.  The transformation of the two villages of Dadara and Pacharia into a community of conservationists is nothing short of extraordinary, and these incredible people deserve global accolades.

The nesting colonies of these quirky birds once repulsed villagers, but today, after five years of persistent work, they are vigilantly safeguarded by the two villages of Dadara and Pacharia in Assam. Photo: Purnima Devi Barman.

The Conservation Leadership Programme is a partnership that brings together Birdlife International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International and Flora and Fauna International. The Conservation Leadership Award enables teams that have been supported in the past to consolidate their previous project successes by creating something long term, which is more practical and conservation-oriented than research oriented. It aims to provide more substantial resources to projects that build long-term capacity for conservation in the project area.

Author: Purnima Devi Barman, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.

 
 
 

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