Film reveals efforts to save world’s rarest stork

The flamboyant, otherworldly greater adjutant stork is slowly being pulled back from the brink of extinction thanks to a community effort inspired by a wildlife biologist in India.

A new film by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media tells the story of Purnima Devi Barman, who has created a movement to save the stork.

The film, “Hargila,” which means bone swallower in the local language, is the first comprehensive visual natural history of the greater adjutant stork. The documentary follows Lab of Ornithology videographer-producer Gerrit Vyn’s travels to India, intent on documenting the rarest stork on earth. He soon discovers Barman, the woman at the heart of community efforts to save the bird.

“The story of the greater adjutant sets the best of human nature against the realities of the human condition, and our planet’s unraveling ecology,” said Vyn. “And a bizarre, otherworldly stork stands tall in the middle of it all.”

Barman remade the stork’s image in the eyes of villagers who once viewed it as a bad omen and chopped down its nesting trees. Her efforts began with a small group of village women, stressing the ecological value of the greater adjutant. That group has grown to more than 400 and is referred to as “Hargila’s Army.” Now the birds near the city of Guwahati in the northeast state of Assam are protected, and celebrated, and their local numbers are increasing.

Despite this success, the greater adjutant’s existence remains precarious. Only about 1,200 adults remain in the world. The species persists on nonprotected land, living in nesting colonies around rural villages where they rely on garbage dumps for food. The key threats to the species are direct human persecution, particularly at nesting colonies; habitat destruction, including felling of nest trees; and drainage, conversion, pollution and degradation of wetlands.

Vyn collaborated with Barman and local conservation groups to capture the video footage during 2016 and 2019 expeditions. “Hargila” will be screened in Assam, India, and at film festivals worldwide. It is also available right now to watch for free.

Pat Leonard is a staff writer for the Lab of Ornithology. Marc Devokaitis is the associate editor of Living Bird magazine.

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