Purnima Devi: Saviour of the Storks

Purnima was only five years old when she had to go and live with her grandmother. The little girl missed her parents and siblings, but her grandmother who had a small farm on the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Assam started taking her to the nearby paddy fields and water bodies, and showing her and telling her about the different birds that could be seen in large numbers. She also taught her traditional bird songs that described not only the beauty but the importance of birds in people’s lives and culture.

The seeds that were planted in those fields took deep roots. Purnima not only fell in love with birds, but would also go on to devote her professional life to studying and protecting birds. After her Master’s degree in Zoology, Purnima decided that she wanted to focus on a bird species that she had grown up seeing, but whose numbers seemed to be on the decline. This was the Greater adjutant storks—large majestic birds named for their stiff-legged, almost military gait. These carnivorous birds are “cleaners of the ecosystem” and play a significant role in the food chain in terms of nutrient cycling and ecosystem regulation,

Purnima started her doctoral research on Greater Adjutants in 2007. As she studied their nesting behaviour, Purnima realized that the birds needed tall trees where they could make their platform nests. But with rapid disappearance of natural forests and wetlands, these birds had to seek nesting trees wherever they could find them. The only remaining large trees were in the villages, close to the homes of villagers. But these birds were far from welcome there.

Hargila (which means ‘bone swallower’) as the storks are locally called are scavengers and bring bones and dead animals to their nests, these often drop to the ground. Along with the birds’ foul-smelling droppings, these birds are not the most pleasant of neighbours to have. Villagers even cut down huge old trees in their backyards to prevent these birds from nesting. The birds were also perceived as bad omens or disease carriers. With the declining natural tree cover, and the hostility of the villagers, the survival of Adjutant storks was in jeopardy.

In 2007, while she was still a researcher, Purnima was present when a large tree was cut down, bringing down the nest along with nine chicks. Her attempts to explain to the villagers about the ecological significance of such scavenger birds, were met with ridicule by the local people. One local resident even scoffed her saying that she should work in his house to clean up the storks’ stinking messes. Rather than being put off by this, Purnima chose to abandon her academic research and to focus instead on working with the local communities to change their perceptions towards this bird.

Purnima decided to start by reaching out to the women, who did not often have a voice, but who could potentially influence the entire family. Her first step was to gain access to the nests which were often in trees on family land. This was initially by getting close to the individual women who were the homemakers. Purnima then started to get the women together through common events such as cooking competitions. She began by appealing to their maternal instincts by stressing the importance of safe nesting sites for the birds, while also discussing their ecological importance. She told them that when our children are young they also make a mess at home, but we still love and protect them. More and more women started coming to these meetings, and joined in the efforts to protect nesting sites and rehabilitate chicks that had fallen from the nests. They organised ‘baby showers’ to celebrate newly-hatched chicks; they revived the traditional songs, poems, festivals and plays that featured these birds.

Purnima realized that for sustained community engagement they needed to take ownership. She helped to provide the women with weaving looms and yarn so that they could create and sell textiles with motifs of the hargila. This initiative provided livelihood options, supported women to become entrepreneurs, and boosted their sense of pride and ownership, as well as raising the profile of the stork. Today the “Hargila Army” consists of over 10,000 women. The Hargila army members call their leader Purnima hargila baideu, or stork sister. The power of community conservation is evident. This has also led to the involvement of the local government departments to recognize, and in some ways support the community efforts.

Since Purnima Devi Burman started her conservation programme, the number of nests in the three villages of Kamrup district in Assam, where she first started her efforts have risen from 28 to more than 250, making this the largest breeding colony of Greater adjutant storks in the world. In 2017, Barman began building tall bamboo nesting platforms for the endangered birds to hatch their eggs. Her efforts were rewarded a couple of years later when the first Greater adjutant stork chicks were hatched on these experimental platforms.

Safeguarding single nests is not enough, the storks’ habitats also need to be restored. The Hargila Army has helped communities to plant tens of thousands of saplings near stork nesting trees and wetland areas in the hope they will support future stork populations.

The Greater adjutant stork is the second-rarest stork species in the world. It is also listed as ‘Endangered’ as per the IUCN Red List which notes that there are only about 1200 of these storks remaining in the world. The dramatic decline in their population has been partly driven by the destruction of their natural habitats, especially wetlands, and the ruthless destruction of their nesting trees. Assam in India is home to the largest population (around 1000) of these birds. This is in no small measure due to the efforts of Purnima Devi Burman and her Hargila Army. 

Purnima Devi’s efforts have also received wider recognition. She has received several awards. She was the recipient of the 2022 UNEP Award for Champion of the Earth for Entrepreneurial Vision. The annual awards are the highest environmental honour that the UNEP confers on individuals and organisations whose actions have a “transformative impact” on the environment.

Purnima Devi was recognized for “pioneering conservation work that empowered thousands of women, creating entrepreneurs and improving livelihoods while bringing the Greater adjutant stork back from the brink of extinction. Her work has shown that conflict between humans and wildlife can be resolved to the benefit of all. By highlighting the damaging impact that the loss of wetlands has had on the species who feed and breed on them, she reminds us of the importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems.”

As we mark Earth Day on 22 April, this is a good time to celebrate such Champions of the Earth who have made it their life’s mission to Protect and Conserve.


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