“Hargila” Film Documents the Greater Adjutant, World’s Rarest Stork

From the Winter 2022 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

A new film by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media documents the world’s most endangered stork and the local education and conservation efforts in the far northeast Indian state of Assam to bring the species back from the brink.

Hargila tells the story of the Greater Adjutant, a huge scavenging stork that was once widely distributed across India and Southeast Asia but is now mostly confined to a last stronghold in Assam, with small populations persisting in Cambodia’s northern plains region. (Greater Adjutants are called “hargilas” in the Assamese language, which literally translates as “bone swallower.”)

The species is classified as Endangered by the IUCN with a rapidly declining population of around 1,200 individuals. 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.

Historically, adjutants bred during the dry season, taking advantage of abundant prey steadily trapped by receding water levels, and scavenging the remains of now extirpated megafauna. Today, the last adjutants survive alongside humans, congregating at garbage dumps and nesting colonially in rural villages. The majority of the world’s remaining population lives around the city of Guwahati and relies on a single garbage dump for food and on nearby villages for nesting.

As the adjutant’s nesting colonies occur outside of state protected areas in Assam, community conservation initiatives are the only hope for saving the bird from extinction. Through the efforts of a remarkable conservation leader, Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, and the movement she has inspired, the birds are now protected, celebrated, and increasing their numbers locally. Despite this success and the momentum to conserve the species, the Greater Adjutant’s existence remains precarious.

In collaboration with Dr. Barman and Aaranyak, a nongovernmental organization based in Guwahati, India, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology collected the first comprehensive natural history video coverage of the Greater Adjutant in 2016 and 2019 to inspire local and international support for Greater Adjutant conservation and the communities involved. The film Hargila is one result of that work.

“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,” says Vyn. “And a bizarre, otherworldly stork stands tall in the middle of it all.”

Hargila will be screened locally in Assam and at film festivals worldwide. Starting January 10, the film will be available to watch for free on the Cornell Lab’s YouTube channel.

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