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Can A Fashion ‘Army’ Save India’s Massive, Prehistoric-Looking Bird?



Can A Fashion ‘Army’ Save India’s Massive, Prehistoric-Looking Bird?

Women scientists and conservationists are combining conservation with fashion in India to save Greater Adjutant Storks (Leptoptilos dubius) known locally as Hargilas.

These giant scavenger birds have a reputation as unwelcome neighbors for farmers, with their noisy, messy and smelly nesting habits; there’s less than 1,200 breeding adults left in the world, 75% of which are found in Assam, India.

Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist in Assam started engaging women in the community through traditional cooking competitions and has now formed a grassroots group known as the ‘Hargila Army’ to change perceptions and empower women, providing them with livelihood opportunities while creating a sustainable and equitable conservation model.

“This project is important because it not only protects an endangered species but the Hargila Army now has more than 10,000 women who have transformed from homemakers to conservationists: we empower them with weaving and tailoring by merging the Hargila motif into Assamese textiles,” she says, adding that the organisation also empower women through farming and other livelihood activities.

“Our Assamese mekhela chadors (women’s traditional wear) and Assamese gamosas (traditional towels) are now adorned with Hargila motifs,” she says, “Our passion becomes fashion.”

Barman explains that this project started with her PhD studies, but it took a life-changing turn when she witnessed farmers knocking down a nesting tree with nine baby storks, some of them alive and some suffocating.

“As a new mother of twin daughters, I got deeply pained and when I tried to talk to them about the importance of Hargila birds, they said that I was only there to lecture them,” she says, “This encounter highlighted the urgent need to protect these birds, which breed in privately-owned trees in villages, not in protected areas.”

Thanks to grassroots efforts, the number of nests has risen from just 30 in 2008 to over 150 today, but Barman says the biggest challenge has been changing the mindset of local communities who view these birds as bad omens and unhygienic.

“When I began researching Greater Adjutant storks, I knew that a traditional, top-down approach wouldn’t work,” she says, “These magnificent birds faced threats specific to our region, and any solution needed to consider the local context.”

In 2017, Barman won a Whitley Award and in May 2024 was honoured with the £100,000 Whitley Gold Award for her work to protect the Greater Adjutant Stork and its wetland habitat with her team at Aaranyak.

Growing Up In India

Barman says growing up in North-East India, a biodiversity hotspot, she’s always been surrounded by the incredible richness of nature, which instilled a deep respect for the environment and its delicate balance.

“It all began at the age of five when my grandma gently guided me in planting my first tree,” she says, “She taught me to care for it like a cherished friend and shared a beautiful Assamese song about our local egrets, called ‘Bogoli,’ which I sang often: “Bogoliye boga fot di jaa” (which translates to: Egrets, please give me a white bindi, that is, please give me peace).”

Barman’s grandmother was also the first to show her a Hargila in her paddy field.

“I think she sowed the seed of the first Hargila army in me and those moments with grandma planted seeds of love for nature that still flourish within me today,” she says, “These experiences, filled with nature and the lessons from my grandma, inspired me to become a nature lover and guided me towards my current research field.”

Barman explains that the Global South faces unique challenges when it comes to conservation: poverty, resource scarcity, and rapid development all play a role.

“Scientific solutions from our regions have to take these factors into account,” she says, adding that that’s why the project focuses not just on protecting the storks, but also on providing livelihood opportunities for the women involved, creating a win-win situation and ensuring the project’s long-term success.

“My work with Greater Adjutant storks and our community led conservation model ( a behaviour change model) is just one example of how Global South Science can lead the way,” she says. “By fostering collaboration and amplifying the voices of scientists from these regions, we can develop solutions that are not only effective but also equitable and sustainable.”

Saving Turkey Vultures

Half-way across the world, Adrian Naveda-Rodriguez, lead scientist at Conservation Science Partners, Inc. Researchers, is studying another big, underappreciated migratory bird: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).

Turkey vultures can have a six-foot wingspan, eat carrion and the northern species are migratory: birds tagged in Canada have been found thousands of miles away in Venezuela.

Naveda-Rodriguez explains that the populations he studies breed in North America (March to August) and then spend time Central and Northern South America (October to March) to avoid the cold days of the northern winter.

“Vultures provide a unique ecosystem service by feeding upon dead animals, and this service is highly demanded at different time of the years in different areas of the continent,” he says, adding that these movements are related to food availability, for example, birds from Central North America spend time in the Llanos (savanna-like plains) of Colombia and Venezuela during the dry season when there is a relative abundance of dead animals.

“They return to breeding grounds in North America when the rainy season begins in the Llanos and the abundance of dead animals is reduced,” Naveda-Rodriguez says, “If vultures are killed in North America between March and August, as proposed to mitigate human-vulture conflict, we are going to lose an important ecosystem service in Northern South America.”

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