Dr. Purnima Devi Barman Saving Adjutant Stork from Extinction
In 1974, India saw one of its first and greatest protest against the unfair cutting of trees in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. Hailed by Gaura Devi, around 27 women villagers hug the trees to prevent them from being slaughtered at the hands of the corrupt. The bravery of these women resulted in the backout of the lodgers and the movement became internationally renowned as the ‘Chipkoo movement’. Just like the Chipkoo movement, another movement shook the capitalist when a woman from Assam took command of saving the endangered Adjutant Stork birds. Her name is Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, the trailblazer of the Hargila army.
Known for her conservation work with the Adjutant Stork, locally known as Hargila, Purnima Devi created the Hargila army.
Growing up in the beautiful valleys of Kamrup, Assam, Purnima since childhood considered nature her school. Her grandmother, Padumi Devi owned a farm near the banks of Kamrup where several Hargila birds’ rests. Purnima Devi considered these birds as a part of her family and over time grew immense affection and concern for their conservation. Having a childhood surrounded by the richness of nature, her inclination towards it was something organic.
Purnima Devi Barman attended Gauhati University in Assam where she obtained her master’s in Zoology, with a specialization in Ecology and Wildlife Biology. She then pursued a Ph.D. and worked as a Senior Wildlife Biologist in the Avifauna Research and Conservation Division at Aaranyak. Her spirit to save these birds was triggered when she once saw a few men cutting down the Kadamba tree, from where fell the Hargila nest. Many birds died and the remaining lost their habitat. When she questioned the perpetrators, the villagers mocked her as they considered Hargila as a bad omen due to their unpleasant appearance. It was the day when Dr. Purnima Devi decided to trailblaze a move towards the conservation of Adjutant Stork. She put aside her Ph.D. to work full-time in Hargila conservation.
Hargila is a 5-foot-tall smelly scavenging bird that nests mostly in tall Kadamba trees with a broad crown. The broad spreading branches provide enough space for the huge Hargila birds to rest, and many create their nests on the top of these trees. As of lately, the IUCN has categorized these birds as an endangered species.
Establishment of the Hargila Army
Purnima Devi knew that women are the most important people in the Assamese culture and if she could bring together these women and educate them about the importance of Hargila birds, the tables could turn. Thus, the Hargila Army was born in 2008. She led the conservative campaign that integrates with the Assamese culture, including spreading messages during festivals, street plays, and community celebrations. The education campaign was directly directed toward the children to teach them about ecological importance. She also spread awareness using film celebrities to spread conservation awareness.
She has successfully increased the number of nests from 27 to 250 which houses about 600 Hargila birds in the area. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts have also been fruitful as they have released several birds into the wild. Today, the Hargila army includes some 10,000 women who cohesively towards educating and creating awareness about Hargila conservation. Barman has also developed an artificial breeding platform for the greater adjutant, which was successfully used to hatch a nestling in 2019. During the breeding seasons, the women also organise baby showers of these birds to spread the feeling positivity among the villagers.
These are just few ways through which Purnima Devi has educated the villagers about the Adjutant Storks, but what about those beyond their village? To educate people beyond her village, she has included her conservation techniques along with tourism. The women of the Hargila army have redesigned their traditional clothes- Gamosa. It is a traditional Assamese fabric with beautiful embroidery of Hargila birds. Today, Hargila becomes synonymous with Kamrup.
Purnima Devi’s efforts have won her the Whitley Award also known as the Green Oscar in 2017 and the Nari Shakti Purashkar by the President of India in 2018. In 2016, she has also been awarded the UNDP India Biodiversity Award and the RBS Earth Hero Award.