By Priya Ranganathan

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Dr. Purnima Devi Barman has a dream – a dream of humans and storks living side-by-side in harmony.

But why storks, you might ask?

Let us travel to the state of Assam, a fertile land nestled in Northeast India, bordered by West Bengal, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Bangladesh. This beautiful land is home to some incredible wildlife, including one of the last populations of the Greater Adjutant Stork, known in Assamese as the hargila. The Greater Adjutant Stork is a large bird standing five feet tall with an eight-foot wingspan. Unfortunately, it is also an extremely ugly bird and has very few supporters. This wetland bird, which nests in tall trees at the edges of forests and hunts for fish and insects in waterbodies, used to be found from Assam all throughout Southeast Asia. However, only 1,200 adult storks remain today, and they only live in small pockets of land in Assam, with a few breeding populations spotted in parts of Bihar. Another small population lives in Cambodia. Unfortunately, in Assam, their nesting trees are found on private property.

Dr. Barman, the Stork Sister (Image: Dr. Purnima Barman)

So how did Dr. Barman go about the Herculean task of saving this endangered stork?

First, she decided to tackle the bad image that the storks had gathered in the villages because of their messy habits. She went from door to door talking to the women and pointing out the similarities between children and the storks. “My daughters make messes at home sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly start to hate them. They are my daughters. I am their guardian; I look after them no matter what.” She then told the village women that they were the guardians of the storks, and if they did not care for the ugly birds, nobody would, and the species would go extinct.

She also decided to win over the women in other ways. Dr. Barman organized local cooking competitions for the women and at the end of these fun events, she would talk about the stork and how important it was that they save it. Many women were amazed to hear that the rare bird chose to nest in their villages. They felt special and proud!

The children of these women also played a role in praising the stork. At school, they would learn about the bird, and then go home and tell their parents about how important it was to conserve it. They would even sing songs at their school day programmes about the stork, with Dr. Barman watching proudly. Slowly but surely, she was beginning to make a difference!

The Hargila Army (Image: Smita Sharma)

Soon, the women of the villages began to call Dr. Barman the “hargila baideu,” which means “stork sister” in Assamese. People began to call her when baby storks fell from their nests and were injured, and even helped to transport them to the Assam State Zoo where the veterinarian could nurse them back to health. Since 2010, people have not cut down a single tree on their private lands, choosing to let the storks nest in peace. Amazingly, the women have also begun to include the stork in their religious chanting, asking the gods to protect the bird and preserve its population.

Dr. Barman has raised an army of women who are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their stork – the Hargila Army. She empowers these women, most of whom have stork nesting trees on their property, by employing them as weavers of Assamese gamochas (cotton towels) and other silk and cotton textiles. The women weave the picture of the stork into the items that they create, thus increasing their income while spreading the message of stork conservation across India. The government provides high-quality looms and thread to these women and business is going strong even today!

The inspiring story of Dr. Barman and her beloved storks is a message to everyone that each of us can make a difference. Dr. Barman took an unloved, common bird and made it into a national symbol of wildlife conservation and women power. Perhaps one of you will be the next Dr. Barman, fighting to save an animal, bird, or plant that lives in your corner of India!

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam.

About the Artist:

Saloni Basrur is an artist who is also pursuing a career in conservation. She tries to bring her artwork to life through creativity and storytelling and hopes to continue doing so for conservation communication.