A Biologist, an Outlandish Stork and the Army of Women Trying to Save It
Life can change in an instant, as I experienced when I put my eyes on a tall and strangely impressive bird known as the greatest helper.
It was India in 2018, in the northeastern state of Assam. I ended up there in part because of absurd circumstances, which included filming for a real TV pilot while navigating a two-wheeler in the Himalayas. After crossing some of the highest and most dangerous roads in the world, including the Tanglang La Mountains, I dared to see a traditional selection of endangered animals: Asian elephants, larger horned rhinos, western hobbies.
As I arrived in Gauhati, the capital of Assam, I saw a five-foot-tall[5 m]bird soaring near the side of the road. I was so impressed with his appearance that I asked the driver to pull me up so that I could look better. He had pierced blue eyes, an elongated electric-yellow neck, a swing, an inflatable neck pouch, long legs that moved with a hard military gait, and black hair above the (mostly bald) prehistoric head. Little did I know that this outrageous animal – also endangered, though not famously – would change the course of my professional life.
Seeing how excited I was by the huge stork, the guide offered to take me to the site of the largest population all year round with the largest helpers in the world.
To my surprise, he led me to the vast Boragaon landfill, a landfill bordering the Deepor Beel wetland, an ecologically important water storage basin threatened by pollution and encroachment.
As we pulled into the landfill, I felt like we were entering a dream after the apocalyptic fever: Denial had piled up above an East Village building. I have seen countless people, including young children, picking up trash with their bare hands. Cows graze medical waste and wild dogs chase each other through the mountains of rubbish. All the while, an excavator continued to push the pile of rubbish higher and higher.
In the middle of this surreal scene, crawling next to garbage cattle egrets, were the spectacular biggest helpers, who circled and walked hard with the other breeders.
After returning from India, I realized that my meeting with the biggest assistants changed me irrevocably. Until then, I had been hunting for a career in New York as a showcase comedian while doing chores on a daily basis. Wildlife photography was relatively new to me. I considered it just a pleasant hobby. But suddenly I wanted to continue the maintenance photo with every fiber of my existence.
I quickly discovered the work of Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist who has dedicated her life to protecting larger helpers. The founder of Army Hargila, a local volunteer effort to retain volunteers from all women, Dr. Barman led the women’s body in protecting nesting sites, rescuing fallen bird babies and educating the Assamese community on the importance of these rare and endangered cleaners.
After dating Dr. Barman for several months, I traveled back to Assam in February 2020. Dr. Barman invited me to stay at her home in Guwahati, where she lives with her husband, who is also a wildlife biologist, and the twin. her teenage daughters.
On our first visit together to the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari, on the outskirts of Guwahati, Dr. Barman repeatedly pointed to her car window in “hargilas”, the local word for larger auxiliaries derived from the Sanskrit word “bone swallow”. “I could not believe how many of our birds were watching from their huge nests and climbing thermally high above our heads – especially since 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that only between 800 and 1,200 mature individuals were left in existence, with the population declining.
Assam is the last stronghold of this endangered species, home to more than 80 percent of the world’s largest auxiliary population. (The rest of the population is divided between Cambodia and the Indian state of Bihar.)
In the past, Dr. Barman explained, the biggest helpers were considered unhealthy inconveniences and were believed to be bad omen, causing many of the nesting trees to be cut down. Many of Hargila’s military efforts are aimed at protecting such trees.
The group’s efforts are also aimed at restoring society’s perception of birds – to “bring birds into people’s hearts, minds and cultures,” Dr. Barman said. Conservation work has long been plagued by taxonomic bias, as people generally prefer attractive, forward-looking mammals. “The more people see crickets as a bad omen, a carrier of disease and a parasite,” Dr. Baman told me, “the more obsessed I am.”
The project has paid dividends. The local population of the largest helper increased to about 950 birds, from 400 birds in 2007. The number of nesting colonies in the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari also increased over the same period – to 220 nests, from 28.
In recent years, Hargila’s army has grown to include thousands of committed members – people who have received some level of conservation training – and about 400 women who are actively involved in leading the movement. Most of its organizers are rural housewives who help incorporate an appreciation for older helpers into local traditions. They weave more auxiliary patterns on traditional Asian fabrics and even throw baby showers for the birds during the breeding season.
The most discreet awareness program I attended was at a local wedding that included a replica of a giant bird guarding the entrance and a henna-themed hook designed in the hands and arms of wedding guests.
Dr. Barman’s efforts have led to a broader sense of empowerment among the women who make up Hargila’s army. Many receive tools and training – including donations of looms and sewing machines – that can help them earn extra income.
“It seems that our lives have changed completely after incorporating hargila patterns into our clothes,” said a member of Hargila’s army, Jonali Rajbongshi, who, after receiving a new sewing machine, began sewing cotton bags embroidered with larger additives.
We also visited the home of a woman named Pratibha Malakar, who weaves a red and white gamgoza hargila – a traditional cloth towel – with speed and know-how.
Dr. Barman told me that the community conservation model could easily be replicated in other parts of the world. “Women are the key and the biggest makers of change,” he explained. “When we educate women, when we involve women, we achieve a sustainable goal.”
Awareness-raising among local schools is one of the group’s tactics and I went with Dr. Barman to some of these surprises. Her presentations, which included lively discussions, brochures, educational games, and coloring pages, brought students to the edge of their seats.
Towards the end of my time in Assam, I accompanied Dr. Barman and her team back to the Boragaon landfill, where he led an outreach program. The children sat among the wreckage, eating sweets and coloring the eccentric storks.
In the middle of her presentation, I looked around to find the corner of the landfill full of laughter and courtesy. It was an unexpectedly happy moment: we were all gathered from so many different situations by a remarkable woman and an endangered, if often overlooked, scanner – the incredible goal of a campaign and transformational conservation.
Carla Rhodes is a wildlife photographer living in the Catskills. You can follow her work on Instagram.