The greater adjutant stork — or hargilla, which translates to “swallower of bones” in Sanskrit— is an endangered bird that numbers between 800 to 1,200 in India and Cambodia.
Seventy women in and around Dadara, India, are trying to save it.
In the fall, Dadara and its neighboring villages Pasariya and Singimari, will be swarmed by flocks of the ungainly birds looking to mate. The surrounding wetlands and tall trees create a perfect environment for them, which is why the Hargilla Army is so important.
The Hargilla Army is a conservation brigade of 70 local women who recently won the United Nations Development Program India’s 2016 Biodiversity Award for their efforts to protect the stork’s environs. And their efforts have effects beyond the world of conservation awards: The region under their protection is now “the biggest greater adjutant nesting colony in the world,” Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist with Aaranyak, a conservation nonprofit in Assam, told National Georgraphic.
A 2015 study led by Barman concluded that the tri-village area is now home to around half of the world’s population of the birds. “Such a large number of nests have not been recorded in other … colonies in India or in Cambodia,” she said.
Barman worked with local women to emphasize the breed’s importance as a scavenger of disease-ridden carrion and link in the food chain of the wetlands, as well as its importance in Hindu mythology. (Lord Vishnu rides one of the storks.)
The Army was formed out of these meetings, and Barman claims that, thanks to their efforts, not a single tree in the area has been cut down since 2010.
“We were awestruck … by the newfound importance of our villages due to this bird and the trees,” Nilima Das, a brigade member, told Nat Geo.
The organization’s 14 groups (of five members each) have the support of local government and police, and the women’s place in the community ensures backing from non-official channels as well. They teach children about the bird’s importance in schools, write hymns about the bird and dress as storks for street-corner plays they perform.
“Our Hargilla Army is an army without arms,” Barman concluded, “yet armed with the commitment and determination to battle against all odds in saving this endangered bird.”