* Once found across South and Southeast Asia, the Greater Adjutant is one of the most threatened stork species in the world
* In Bihar, the discovery of breeding pairs and the growth in numbers since 2007 are the happy stories of conservation
* A team of young Garuda Saviours has successfully convinced local villagers not to cut old trees and to plant saplings to increase the numbers of trees favoured by the Greater Adjutant Stork
A towel wrapped around his head and ears as protection from the cold, Arun Yadav stands near a tall tree, the home of two stork nests. It is a busy season for the Bihar farmer, for December is when he tends to his rabi or winter crops. But busy as he is, Yadav is also always looking out for the endangered Greater Adjutant Storks ( Leptoptilos dubius ).
He is one of hundreds of farmers ensuring the conservation of the Garuda, as the bird is known among the villagers of this riverine floodplains belt of Bhagalpur. “ Hum log swechha se Garuda ka dekh bhal karte hain (We voluntarily take care of the storks),” he says.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the bird was treated like any other, he says. “We were not aware of the importance of this bird. Everything started changing from 2006-07 when three of these storks were spotted, followed by six nests. I am one of the few farmers associated with its conservation since then.”
Once found across South and Southeast Asia, the Greater Adjutant is one of the most threatened stork species in the world. It is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species and listed under Schedule IV of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
There are only three known breeding grounds — one in Cambodia and two in India — in Assam and in Kadwa Diara, Bihar. The English name of the stork, which has a large wedge-shaped bill and a prominent neck pouch, is derived from its stiff soldier-like gait.
The global population of Greater Adjutant Storks is estimated at 800-1,200. The bird population has fallen over the years largely because of the presence of plastic in garbage. There have been many instances of the scavenger birds dying after ingesting plastic bags.
But in Bihar, the discovery of breeding pairs and the growth in numbers since 2007 are the happy stories of conservation. A research paper presented in February 2020 by Arvind Mishra of the Mandar Nature Club (Bhagalpur) at the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species, Conference of Parties (CMS COP 13), in Gandhinagar credited the work of local community conservation groups for this turnaround.
Mishra, a bird expert, first spotted the storks nesting and breeding in 2006-07 in the riverine areas in Bhagalpur. He motivated different communities in these villages of Kadwa Diara to work for their conservation. Initially hesitant, the villagers and fisherfolk of the region soon realised the importance of the Garuda and even developed an emotional attachment to it due to agrarian benefits and a religious link.
“Within 14 years with active support and involvement of the local community the population of Greater Adjutant increased from 78 in 2007 to nearly 600 in 2020. It is a manifold jump,” says Mishra, who is also state coordinator of Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN). The number of nests increased from 130 in 2018 to 177 in 2019.
Earlier the local community was not greatly troubled by the felling of trees where the birds nested, the presence of electrical installations in the vicinity of nesting grounds, or the falling of nests and chicks.
But now children inform adults if they spot a stranger or an animal near a nest. Farmers and village women keep an eye out, too. “The elderly and the children in our village help us protect the birds,” Yadav says.
The farmers are aided by the birds’ diet: The storks eat rats, snakes and insects that harm crops. Mukund Singh Kushwaha, another farmer, says, “We no longer fear any damage by rats as they [the birds] are taking care by eating them. Similarly, [they eat] insects.”
“For farmers, crops are their lifeline and source of livelihood, and the birds protect them [the crops],” he adds.
Garuda is considered the mount of Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s prime deities. Mishra points out that the campaign to save the bird stresses on this aspect. Some villagers worship the bird and call it “Garuda Maharaj” or “Guru Garuda”.
Ramesh Mandal, another resident of Kadwa Bagri, says, “We don’t allow Gulgulias to roam here in search of birds.” Gulgulia is the name of a nomadic community whose traditional occupation is hunting.
In 2015, the Bihar government started supporting the conservation of Greater Adjutant Storks and a rescue and rehabilitation centre was set up at Sundervan in Bhagalpur. A temporary rescue centre has also been set up in the breeding zone where people can administer first aid to injured birds. When the birds recover, they are released in their natural habitat.
Local environment protection bodies and the state forest department have tried to encourage the community conservation groups by naming them “Garuda Saviours”.
Subhashish, a college student, is one of 30 Garuda Saviours in Kadwa Diara. “If we spot a chick fallen from a nest, we immediately administer first aid to it and inform the rescue centre at Sundervan. We also set up big nets under the trees with nests to save chicks from injuries if they fall.”
He says a team of young Garuda Saviours has successfully convinced local villagers not to cut old trees and to plant saplings to increase the numbers of trees favoured by the Greater Adjutant Stork.
Along with Prince Kumar, another Garuda Saviour, Subhashish motivates school-age children to help save the birds. “We’re preparing the next generation of Garuda Saviours from the local community because conservation work will have to continue.”
The Garuda Saviours were recently trained by the conservation group Bombay Natural History Society to identify and count the birds, rescue, handle them and provide primary treatment to them. The Saviours went to a three-day bird festival in Bhagalpur town, and on field trips to hone their knowledge of ornithology.
Mishra has recommended that Kadwa Diara receive protection under the government’s Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) scheme, a move that has been supported by VB Mathur, chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority of India. Mathur plans to inform the UN Environment Programme about the work being done to protect the Greater Adjutant Stork in Bihar.
This report was first published in The Third Pole