GERRIT VYN, FILMMAKER, CORNELL LAB CONSERVATION MEDIA: As a photographer working in conservation, my job is to photograph and film some of the most endangered birds on earth. But I never knew it would lead me to a place like this. [VYN: Stop here.] VYN: But I had to come here to tell the story of the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork — a bird known locally as ‘Hargila’.
VYN: Do you think all the birds will be over there, or do you think some will be here?
MAN: I don’t know. We are not sure where they are going to put the garbage.
VYN: As few as 1200 of these birds remain on earth and this is their last stronghold.
VYN: And if it weren’t for the commitment of one person, these birds might not be here at all.
DR. PURNIMA BARMAN: Gerrit, there’s a stork! See … there’s a stork there. From the front there, there they are … only one there
VYN: My research led me to Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a biologist in Assam studying the world’s largest remaining population of Greater Adjutants.
DR. BARMAN: Every time I come here, I get so excited. Every time.
VYN: On the outskirts of the city of Guwahati, she took me to a nesting colony high in the trees above a village called Dadara.
DR. BARMAN: You can see the three nests. Earlier, you know last month, it had five nests in this tree. Two nests fall down, and this is the active nest now. You can see on the other trees we put some nets, so that the baby birds reduce their injury when they fall down from the nest. You can listen to the bill clattering: tok tok tok like this. In breeding season, they have lots of sounds. I love this area a lot because lots of birds are found here.
VYN: I came with the idea that shooting the first high quality images of the Greater adjutant would bring more international attention to these birds and to Purnima’s work. She offered to be my guide to the storks and the community, and I’d work to film and photograph as much of the bird’s life as I could. It’s impossible to appreciate the storks from the ground. So, our first challenge was to film a nest 100 feet up in the tree canopy.
VYN: Before the breeding season began, Purnima arranged for the construction of a bamboo tower that would put me close to the canopy of a nesting tree. It was critical to be in the right position to capture intimate moments in the family lives of these stork’s never filmed before. I couldn’t wait to get to the top and see the birds up close for the first time. [VYN: Top floor. Man, beautiful.]
VYN: Directly above people’s homes the scene looks prehistoric – the tree canopy enshrouded in fog and five nests coming to life…each with hungry chicks and a parent that has guarded them through the long cool night. When the sun rises and illuminates them, they’re both beautiful and bizarre. At close range the one-and-a-half meter adults are imposing. Long-legged with a massive beak. Bare skin vibrantly colored in yellow, orange and red. And a dangling inflatable air pouch used in courtship displays. Their intense blue eyes appear knowing. They feel like more than a bird. The storks are also protective around their nests, especially when confronting neighbors that are trying to steal sticks. Skirmishing with neighbors is a part of life for hargila. But conflict with human neighbors is more complicated and has contributed to drastic population declines across their historic range.
DR. BARMAN: Working for hargila is a very challenging job because hargila builds nests in the privately owned areas. So everything depends on the willingness and support of the tree owners. And the people you know they consider the bird as a very messy bird, unhygienic bird, and because of the smelliness they just cut down the trees to get rid of the bird. One day, 10 years back, I came to Dadara. I found a tree owner cutting down a tree. The birds were nesting on the tree. When he was cutting down the tree, all the birds fell down. Nine baby birds. I didn’t know what to do at that time, but I felt deeply pained, and I asked the person — I dared to speak to the person — “Why are you doing so? Hargila, they are very important to our environment, and unique to Assam.” And he was very reactive. He and all of his neighbors insult me, starting teasing me as agent of hargila. That day I felt very bad. When I came back home, I felt, what I am going to do with my PhD? Even I couldn’t motivate one person. [depressed at home] I wanted to save Hargila from extinction, to save their habitat, to educate people. [back stiffens]. And from that day my mission started. [exits scene with purpose]
VYN: Each morning that I filmed the nests, I waited in great anticipation for the moment when dozens of Hargila parents would arrive to feed their chicks. Hargilla are soaring birds and rely on warm rising air thermals that build in late morning to lift their broad, 2-and-a-half meter wingspan high into the sky so they can travel long distances. Like clockwork, they arrive from feeding grounds around 10:30 and parachute down to their nests. When the adults reunite they greet each other with a series of postures and vocalizations. And often, copulation. And then they get on to the business of feeding their ravenous chicks. Throughout the day the adults clean and refurbish their nests. It’s surprising to see a bird that people associate with being dirty take such great care cleaning each day. Even the chicks participated. The storks also collect new vegetation from surrounding trees and add it to the structure. Some are better at housekeeping than others. After several weeks in the tower, it was difficult to leave the birds that had become more and more fascinating as the days went on, but I felt confident I had captured intimate images of the stork’s lives – their care for their growing chicks, the commitment to protect them, their playfulness and personalities, and their sanctuary in the canopy of Dadara’s trees. But following their story would require filming in the place where most of these birds were getting their food.
VYN: This is the Guwahati Dump. And it’s home for most of the year to at least half the world’s population of Greater Adjutant Stork. The storks fly here, 10 kilometers from the nesting colony, to scavenge the city’s waste. Historically these birds would have spent their time feeding in wetlands or scavenging carcasses across the countryside. But human activities have reduced those opportunities, so they frequently feed here. Side-by-side with people struggling to survive. [VYN: Obviously not a healthy place to be. Pretty intense.] VYN: To gather recyclables, they endure temperatures over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the smell and dust and smoke, and exposure to the health hazards of wet rotting garbage. It’s overwhelming to see people in these conditions. Especially the children. And hard to care that I can’t get anywhere near the storks.
VYN: So, this is about as close as we’ve ever been to the storks. Even though they’ll let the people that are working here get within arm’s length of them, it’s incredible that there’s some sort of individual recognition, our taxi driver and some of our other helpers that have come with us, the storks are also afraid of them.
VYN: We tried coming at dawn and setting up a blind but the birds didn’t cooperate. They congregated in a different part of the dump and I couldn’t move. A new strategy was needed – It was critical to show the conditions the Greater Adjutant faces here to underscore Purnima’s work safeguarding their nesting colony in Dadara.
DR. BARMAN: When I started my work, I was not sure what to do. But I think women can make a big difference in conservation. So I started building their support. I started inviting women to cooking competitions. Then I built friendship with them and then I started telling them about the hargila conservation, why hargila is important. [PURNIMA: I did the habitat here, the tree, and this one — that’s birds, symbolic … it is nice!] PURNIMA: I tried to bring the bird into their traditions, into their culture. Women of these villages, they have the skill of weaving. Whenever I got some grants or donors, then we arrange lots of looms or yarns for them. And then we gave them training so that they can weave the bird into their traditional clothes. I formed a group: Hargila Army, all-women group. All are basically the homemakers. Hargila Army means protector of trees, protector of birds. And this way I motivated all the women here.
WOMAN IN BROWN SHIRT: We have seen these storks for ages but never gave them any importance. But ever since PURNIMA came here and organized us, we’ve learned a lot.
WOMAN IN YELLOW: Earlier, there were no storks elsewhere, except at our place. Now these birds are everywhere. Also, everyone knows about Purnima now.
WOMAN IN BLACK SHIRT: We have to protect these storks, and also let you know if any babies fall from the trees.
DR. BARMAN: Now, whenever there is a bird fall, people call us to rescue. [PURNIMA: Actually I am so happy to see them, they are growing so well and many thanks to the doctors, very dedicated team of doctors.] DR. BARMAN: Communities have taken this bird as their own.
VYN: The more time I spent with Purnima, the more I marveled at her energy and commitment to build support for hargila conservation — from the local villagers, to the governor of Assam, and everyone in between.
WOMAN IN YELLOW SHIRT: Please come have tea with us, Purnima. I like you more than my own daughter!
VYN: To illustrate the lengths to which adjutants have been pushed to survive I had to show the lives of individual birds at the dump. I had to get closer. We came up with the idea of turning a motorized tuk-tuk into a blind to follow the birds. [VYN: Oh well] VYN: Vehicles and cows were constantly getting in the way. The dust and smell from trucks and garbage was at times overwhelming. And the birds kept moving. But over several weeks the strategy paid off. And a picture of the bird’s life here finally emerged. The storks’ day begins in a wetland next to the dump, where flocks have roosted safely through the night. People begin arriving from the surrounding community… and the storks begin making their way to the trash piles to wait for fresh garbage to arrive. When it does, they boldly make their way down to join people digging through the rubbish. The storks seek out the remains of butchered livestock and poultry, while the people dig for recyclables. It exposes them [all/both] to insecticides, medical and industrial waste, heavy machinery… …and though the storks are noticeably discerning in what they eat, I saw them consuming plastics when there was food inside. Historically, these birds would have spent their time feeding in wetlands or scavenging carcasses across the countryside. But human activity has reduced those opportunities across the continent, so they frequently feed here. [VYN: So this pressure of population and humanity has not only pushed this bird to the brink but also pushing people to the brink. It’s an incredibly powerful image of nature and wildlife and people and how what we’re doing to the earth is not only destroying biodiversity but it’s affecting people in horrible ways as well.] VYN: It’s a difficult place to be optimistic. But if my time with PURNIMA showed me anything it’s that on person can make a profound difference.
CLASSROOM OF STUDENTS: Hargila is a big bird, It has a long beak, Just like we have families, The stork also has a family, By conserving the hargilas, Let us grow the pride of Assam!
DR. BARMAN: What should we do to protect the storks?
GIRL: We should not fill up the lagoons and construct buildings on them.
BOY: I will explain to my parents that we should conserve these storks.
Girl: We should not cut trees and throw garbage everywhere.
DR. BARMAN: Please repeat, hargila!
DR. BARMAN: Again!
MAN IN TAN WRAP: People in our entire village took it up as a collective responsibility to protect these storks. Now, nobody needs to be told to stop cutting trees. Every family is now involved.
MAN IN BLUE PLAID SHIRT: Earlier we could see these storks only on one or two trees. But now we can see storks on almost all tall trees.
VYN: When Purnima started her work more than a decade ago, there were 28 hargila nests in Dadara. Today there are more than 200. In my final days in Assam, an international conference of women in conservation descended on Dadara to celebrate and learn from Purnima’s success.
DR. BARMAN: I think this story should go to everyone: How the local people, how they are saving a bird.
VYN: I contribute to conservation with a camera and came to Assam with a single-minded focus to record the life of an obscure endangered stork…but conservation is about people. And the work Purnima does is the most challenging and the most important. She is changing the way people see their world.
DR. BARMAN: I feel so lucky, I get so passionate about the birds. Until my last breath I am committed to work with communities to save this bird from extinction.
End of Transcript
A new film by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media tells the story of a wildlife photographer who travels to India intent on documenting the rarest stork on earth, but soon discovers a conservation hero and her inspiring efforts to rally a community to save it.
Hargila documents the Greater Adjutant, a huge scavenging stork that was once widely distributed across India and Southeast Asia but is now mostly confined to a last stronghold in Assam, with small populations persisting in Cambodia’s northern plains region. Greater Adjutants are called “hargila” in the Assamese language, which literally translates as “bone swallower.”
The species is classified as Endangered by the IUCN with a rapidly declining population of around 1,200 individuals. The key threats to the species are direct human persecution, particularly at nesting colonies; habitat destruction, including felling of nest trees; and drainage, conversion, pollution and degradation of wetlands.
Historically, Greater Adjutants bred during the dry season, taking advantage of abundant prey steadily trapped by receding water levels, and scavenging the remains of now extirpated megafauna. Today, the last adjutants survive alongside humans, congregating at garbage dumps and nesting colonially in rural villages. The majority of the world’s remaining population lives around the city of Guwahati and relies on a single garbage dump for food and on nearby villages for nesting.
As the adjutant’s nesting colonies occur outside of state protected areas in Assam, community conservation initiatives are the only hope for saving the bird from extinction. Through the efforts of a remarkable conservation leader, Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, and the movement she has inspired, the birds are now protected, celebrated, and increasing their numbers locally. Despite this success and the momentum to conserve the species, the Greater Adjutant’s existence remains precarious.
In collaboration with Dr. Barman and Aaranyak, a nongovernmental organization based in Guwahati, India, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology collected the first comprehensive natural history video coverage of the Greater Adjutant in 2016 and 2019 to inspire local and international support for Greater Adjutant conservation and the communities involved. The film Hargila is one result of that work.
“The story of the Greater Adjutant sets the best of human nature against the realities of the human condition, and our planet’s unraveling ecology,” says Cornell Lab cinematographer Gerrit Vyn. “And a bizarre, otherworldly stork stands tall in the middle of it all.”
Hargila will be screened locally in Assam, at film festivals worldwide, and via the Cornell Lab’s YouTube channel.
This article also appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Living Bird magazine.
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