Saving the stork

By weaving motifs of the Greater Adjutant, a rare stork species, into their
gamochas, Assam villagers are raising silent conservation
slogans, writes Bijay Sankar Bora from Guwahati

A unique episode of villagers participating in the conservation of an endangered bird species has been unfolding in the non-descript Dadara area in Kamrup district of Assam, about 30 km from the Guwahati city.

The villagers’ commitment for the protection of the bird is reflected in the efforts of weavers from the area, who are raising silent conservation slogans by weaving motifs of the Greater Adjutant into ‘gamocha’ (traditional Assamese towels) to remind the users that only 800 of the species are left on the planet. Greater Adjutant (called hargila in the Assam valley) is an important scavenging bird species that keeps the environment clean, besides regulating the population of vertebrates like frogs, fishes, snails etc. found in wetlands.

Of the 20 stork species found on the planet, Greater Adjutant is the rarest. It is found mainly in Assam and Cambodia. Eighty per cent of the global population of the bird is present in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam and Kamrup district houses about 50 per cent of these birds. Though the species is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, in India, its habitats and nesting colonies are not protected under the provision of the same Act. As these storks build their nesting colonies on trees grown on private land, the threat to their existence becomes greater and conservation efforts remain a far cry sans active cooperation from the community concerned.

A research team of Aaranyak, a society for biodiversity conservation in the North-East, set feet at the Dadara area in Kamrup district in July 2009 with the objective to elicit the community’s cooperation for the conservation of the nesting colony of Greater Adjutant species spread over several treetops in the area. The effort has been funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), UK. The CLP is a partnership of four organisations — Birdlife International, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna and Flora International — working to promote the development of future biodiversity conservation leaders by providing a range of awards, training and mentoring support via an active international network of practitioners.

"By virtue of frequent interaction and motivation efforts initiated by us, the villagers started understanding the importance of the bird species to the ecology. They have started taking pride that theirs’ is one of the few places on the earth where this important species of stork is found and that puts their area in the global map of distribution of important bird species," said Purnima Devi Barman, leader of the Aaranyak research team.

The villagers have become so fond of those storks that they have now started flaunting it in whatever way they can. For instance, a team of weavers led by Sanju Saikia of the village have started weaving the motif of the bird on ‘gamochas’ under the guidance of Purnima Devi, who claims that this new-look ‘gamochas’ have been an instant hit with outsiders.

"Professor Stephen Garnett, Director of the School of Environmental Research Charles Darwin University in Australia, was overwhelmed by the stork motif in the ‘gamocha’ presented to him when I met him at Albarta University in Canada during a conference earlier this month. We are now planning to help and motivate Dadara weavers to weave bedsheets using the stork motif so that their love for the bird can provide them with a source of earning too," she said, adding that Dadara can now be promoted as a tourist location to highlight the community’s involvement in ecology conservation.

According to Paresh Das, Principal of Sankardev Sishu Niketan, Dadara, the participation of villagers in conservation efforts has raised hopes for the survival of the species. "The villagers have realised that just as the Kaziranga National Park is famous for the one-horned rhino, Dadara, too, can win global recognition for the Greater Adjutant if the state’s tourism authorities start promoting it," Das said.