25 Mar 2019
A gangly, bald, leathery bird with a penchant for eating garbage, the Greater Adjutant’s unconventional appearance has brought it to the edge of extinction. But in India, an all-female group of conservationists is fighting to clear its name.
By Neha Sinha
The village hall is a riot of colour. Women in vivid clothing give speeches, sing and shake percussion, and a large, ornately decorated cake is placed at the centre of the throng, complete with candles. But whose birthday are they celebrating? The words iced on the cake offer a clue: “Happy Hatching Hargilla”. This is a hatching ceremony, celebrating the successful breeding of a bird once hated and feared.
Previously widespread across the wetlands of South Asia, the towering Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius (Endangered) suffered dramatic declines during the 20th Century. Some of the causes are familiar – habitat destruction, pollution – but others less so. Their Assamese name, Hargilla – derived from the Sanskrit for “bone-swallower” – gives a clue as to this scavenger’s public image. Because it has a habit of leaving a trail of bones and debris in its wake, the stork was seen as a harbinger of bad luck, to the extent that some villagers even poisoned them or destroyed their nests.
But not anymore. In India today, the stork has found refuge in two locations – the Eastern state of Bihar, and the North Eastern state of Assam, both of which now have substantial nesting sites. Their security hasn’t come easily, though. In both districts, it took eight years of grassroots, intelligent community intervention to secure habitat for these birds.