The Giant Storks of Assam
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Recollections from Guwahati, and Kaziranga National Park, Assam, 2018
Perhaps you are travelling to one of the quiet corners of Assam, seeking pristine wilderness in an Indian state sandwiched between the jungles of south-east Asia and the Himalaya to the north. You land at Guwahati, a bustling metropolis of 1,116,267 souls. Driving out of town, you can’t miss the rubbish heap by the side of the Brahmaputra River. But it’s not so much the scale of the heap that draws the eye – it’s the seemingly light aircraft-sized birds that hang aloft above it. Circling on huge piebald wings, the Guwahati rubbish heap is one of only three places on Earth where they still breed in viable numbers.
The Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos dubius) is a truly vast; it stands about 150cm (4ft 9’) tall, and has an astonishing average wingspan of 250cm (8ft 2’). The weights of wild birds are largely unknown but on height and wingspan alone it overlaps with the three largest members of the stork family (Circoniidae); the Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria) of Central and South America; the Saddle-billed Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) of sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s congener the Marabou (Leptoptilos crumeniferus), also of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Adjutant’s bald head gives it a ferocious aspect, but this is actually a very beneficial adaptation. Adjutants are prolific scavengers, and a feathered head would only get covered in blood when the bird plunged its head into a carcass; bare skin dries quickly and hosts fewer parasites and harmful bacteria. The genus name “Leptoptilos” means “thin feather”, whilst the name “Adjutant” derives from its military-esque, stiff-legged gait. In Bengali, its name is “Hargila”, or “bone-swallower” – a suitable name for an animal that spends most of its time with its head inside a carcass, but something of a misnomer – the Adjutant doesn’t feed on whole bones. The Greater Adjutant’s sympatric and congeneric sister species is the Lesser Adjutant, an omnivorous bird of waterways and rivers, but the Greater Adjutant is much more raptorial, preferring larger sized small prey and dead animals to riverine prey. Perhaps it is fitting that the garbage heaps where humanity discards its offal and food now provides a valuable urban ecosystem that these birds depend on, as their natural habitat is encroached by humans.
The Greater Adjutant’s tale is emblematic of the struggle faced by much of India’s large fauna. It once was widespread across northern India, from Pakistan to Bangladesh and beyond into Myanmar. The location of their breeding grounds remained a mystery to even the most intrepid colonial ornithologists until the 1930’s, when a single small colony was finally discovered in Burma; under the looming threat of human encroachment, it had vanished by the end of the decade. The Guwahati colony remains the largest, with perhaps 550 birds. Three smaller colonies exist; one of perhaps 400 birds in Bihar (India), and at Tonle Sap Lake and Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary (Cambodia). During the British colonial era, the species was extremely abundant in the city of Calcutta (Kolkata). In the rainy season, they stalked the steep ghats scavenging on human leftovers, and congregating at the Parsi Tower of Silence, where they joined vultures in picking over the bodies of people left for a sky burial. The local Bengalis treated the birds with respect, believing them to be protected by the spirits of dead Brahmins; the young British soldiers held no such reservations, passing the time by blowing the birds up, sticking dynamite into meat and laying it out for passing storks. My grandmother, a Bengali who grew up in Calcutta, vividly remembers the huge birds perched on top of buildings and lamp posts, like tall hooded spectres. Those Adjutants were the last in Calcutta; by the time she left India for England, the giant storks had vanished completely.
Although the British soldier’s pastime should not be vindicated, it seems improved sanitation and habitat loss have been the true bane of India’s giant storks. When wetland breeding areas were drained for agriculture and wild mammal populations declined (reducing the abundance of corpses), the Adjutant clung on in areas like Calcutta sustaining themselves off human waste – when the sanitation improved, the Adjutants vanished there too. Now, Guwahati and two remote Cambodian colonies are their last remaining strongholds.
Despite a cataclysmic reduction in range and numbers, there is hope for this enigmatic species. Two enterprising local conservationists, Purnima Devi Barman in Assam and Arvind Mishra in Bihar are working tirelessly to save the Giant Stork. In Assam, Purnima Devi Barman has begun a dedicated women’s campaign in the local community, speaking on the birds behalf at prayer meetings, schools and town halls. Once, their nesting trees were cut down and injured chicks were bludgeoned to death. Now, the community can proudly boast around 550 storks, up from 150 in 2007. Despite putting her PhD on hold to conserve the Storks, Barman has paved the way for independent female conservationists in India, and the birds that hang in the sky above Guwahati on gossamer wings are an inspiring testament to her success. In Bihar, Arvind Mishra works with the Indian Birds Conservation Network to associate the Adjutant with the mythical Garuda bird of Hindu tradition to inspire the community to protect the bird, as well as establishing a rescue and rehabilitation centre for downed chick. For the first time in decades, the Bihar colony population is increasing. It is thanks to the passion and determination of these two conservationists, that this magnificent bird is getting a second chance in the fight for survival.