Ritual beliefs and greater adjutant stork conservation in Dadara, India

By: Purnima Devi Barman, CLP Alumna and Wildlife Biologist, Aaranyak

Mridul Bora

Tree and animal species are symbols of Gods and Goddesses in Indian culture making ritual beliefs an important consideration as we seek to protect our rich biodiversity. Indeed, I have found ritual beliefs to be a major tool for conservation awareness during my entire journey with the greater adjutant stork in a small Assamese village called Dadara.

The greater adjutant stork (Hargila in Assamese) is a threatened bird and Assam is considered its last global strong hold. Hargila make their nesting colonies mainly in tall, privately owned trees. With about 500 birds in three villages, the area hosts the largest nesting colony of this species in the world. The global population of this bird is about 1,000 individuals. The key to the survival of this species is achieving the good wishes of the villagers towards this bird. This is our work.

On September 5, 2015 I was amazed to witness the villagers of Dadara incorporate Hargila into one of their most sacred religious festivals, Jonmastami (the birth of Lord Sri Krishna). This is a remarkable transformation. When we started this work in 2008, villagers complained about the bird and cut their nesting trees. Hargila population numbers therefore suffered. Through years of active community engagement, the villages have taken ownership of the species, and they are proud to live with Hargila. Population numbers of Hargila are now growing.

Here’s our story.

I look back to 2008 and 2009 when I started my work through a Conservation Leadership Programme Future Conservationist Award. I went door to door to understand how the tree owners felt about the bird in each of the three adjoining villages- Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari. Village women disliked this bird and used to say:

“Oh it is so messy! It brings beef and throws it in our camps.”

“Oh it throws bones in my home garden, I need to take a bath every time I clean it!”

“Lots of chicks fall down from nests and when we make call to forest they never attend us!”

“Please take this bird out of my camp. Take this bird to the forests.”

Tree owners used to cut nesting trees to get rid of the birds. The only solution I could think of at that moment was to give direct cash in exchange for not cutting trees on private land. If I did this, the whole effort could have failed; we didn’t have any sustainable support for cash rewards. So, we had to think again. After a few visits we thought of a solution and a few words clicked: “awareness, education,ownership.” I had asked myself why I didn’t dislike my daughters when they made a mess as young children. Because they are my children…I have “ownership” of them. This was the solution, without any doubt!

Rathin Barman
Credit: Rathin Barman

To help people take ownership of the storks, we conducted conservation awareness campaigns in the villages with different target groups: men, women, school children, local police, and the local forest department. We organized cooking, crafts, and folk music competitions for the women who did not want to come out of their houses for discussions. We played a“web of life” game with them to make them understand the importance of each species in their surroundings. We also organized continuous pride campaigns with youth and school children to make them aware that they should be proud to live with this bird. We selected a local school in Dadara where the majority of tree owner’s children get their education. By involving the school teachers in our work we were able to offer continual environmental education to the children.

We also engaged a famous and highly reputed Assamese film star to felicitate the tree owners in public. Indeed, involving a film star was the turning point of the project. One of the tree owners was very surprised:

“What! Is it true that this film star has come because of a normal tree and a bird in our backyard?”

I replied with a smile:

“But this is not a normal tree nor a normal bird…it is a highly endangered bird which is found only in a few places and Khura (Uncle)! you are the proud tree owner.”

He laughed and I saw the charm in his eyes.

Slowly, people started joining us. A group of youths joined us voluntarily to monitor the nests and rescue storks that had fallen from their nests.  A group of women also came forward to join us to celebrate the breeding season of the bird exactly as they celebrate pregnancy of women of the village.

Women cheers with Hargilla

Most people imagine that the police are insensitive to wildlife conservation, but we know differently. The police are resource-rich in emergency situations and if they want to, they can be game changers for the conservation of greater adjutants. The Kamrup District Superintendent of Police, Partha Sarathi Mahanta, in particular, helped us in every possible way and made our mission his own. He alone released four rescued chicks that had been hand reared by a facility run by the Wildlife Trust of India. The released chicks were named Monalisa, Lulu, Saru and Rima (after the tree owner’s daughters and wife) and this simple gesture generated even more warmth and support for the birds. I still remember one bird whom we named Christina, which attracted media.

Dadara proved that community driven conservation is the key to protect wildlife. There were 15 nesting trees of greater adjutants in the village in 2008 when I started my work. Last year we counted 171 nests. Kudos to the tree owners that from 2010, there was not a single tree cut down in the villages.

Encompassing the campaign into the village’s ritual belief system has also played a large part in the effort to protect the species. The villagers have included the stork campaign in their holy book Geeta Bhagawat procession, which has increased awareness of the bird.

At the Janmastomi on September 5, I was amazed to see how village women folk prayed to God for a better life of their bird Hargila who comes to their villages for breeding year after year. Village women composed new prayer songs:

“Hargila, you are safe in our village.”

“Come and breed here and grow your family.”

“We are blessed with your presence in our villages.”

It’s hard to believe that a few years back, village women ignored this bird. Now they pray to God for its safe future.

This was the result of the long works of the conservation team of Aaranyak, volunteers from a local school in Dadara and conservation workers in the area. This would not have been possible without the continuous support of the Conservation Leadership Programme.  My friend Mridul, Simanta and Konseng were with me on 5 September at Dadara.  When the village women group was offering prayers to God for the welfare of greater adjutant and for a successful breeding season ahead, they were stunned and speechless.

Mridul said, “It’s time to go home Purnima ba (sister), let us make a report of this programme and let the whole world know about the efforts of the villagers of Dadara for saving this endangered bird.” This shook me and I realized that yes, this community is amazing and needs loud applause from every corner of the world.

There are many miles to go, and we are walking together.

Credit (top to bottom): Mridul Bora, Rathin Barman, Purnima Devi Barman

Voices of rare ‘talking’ turtles may prevent their extinction

Turtles breeding & Camila © Camila Ferrara

Camila Ferrara is an aquatic turtle specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Brazil Programme. Here she tells us about her ground-breaking work to conserve Brazil’s most threatened river turtles.

Years ago in the Brazilian Amazon, I was exposed to an unexpected but prevalent philosophy for how humans viewed animals. To the indigenous riverine people I encountered, an animal’s primary purpose was for food. Many of these people had never considered that such animals could become extinct. This perspective both scared and motivated me.

I made the decision to move to Manaus in the Amazon and have since devoted myself to working with science colleagues and local communities to conserve wildlife, especially turtles. Since the time of the Portuguese Empire, Amazonian turtles have been an important source of protein in the Amazon, but due to the uncontrolled consumption of their eggs and meat, turtles are now among the most threatened animals in the region.

Turtles that “talk”

Studying the reproductive behaviour and sexual selection of red-headed Amazon River turtles (Podocnemis erythrocephala), one of the five most endangered species in the Amazon, fuelled my interest in these species and I began research on the acoustic communication of giant South American River turtles (Podocnemis expansa).

During this study, my colleagues and I found that these aquatic turtles use several different kinds of vocal communication. After two years collecting 2,122 vocalizations we realized the turtles were using sounds to coordinate social behaviours, including female turtles calling to newly hatched offspring. Such communication begins as early as the turtles’ embryonic stage, about 36 hours before the babies leave their eggs. This discovery led to a second, as this is the first time scientists have identified post-hatchling parental care in turtles.

We also discovered that hatchlings call to synchronize their births as well to their mothers, and adults call to synchronize reproductive behaviour when migrating to common nesting and feeding areas. We are now developing a growing body of evidence that suggests that sound is essential for this species to exchange information.

Hatchlings © Camila Ferrara

Can river turtles be saved?

These new findings are supporting and strengthening conservation models for the river turtles, now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since 2013, I have worked for WCS Brazil as an aquatic wildlife ecologist with an emphasis on saving the Podocnemididae family of turtles. This family is not only native to northern South America but also Madagascar. It includes the giant South American River turtle, the red-headed Amazon River turtle, the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle, the six-tubercled Amazon turtle and the big-headed side neck turtle, the most commercialized species in the Amazon.

Amazon turtles are a major source of protein for riverine communities, but turtle dishes are also very popular in northern Brazil. There are now laws prohibiting people from eating turtles but demand has not ceased, particularly in big cities.

Preserving populations

Early in my work in the Amazon, I had the opportunity to develop a turtle conservation project in the Unini River, a tributary of the Rio Negro in Brazil. The purpose of the project was to implement a conservation programme for freshwater turtles at breeding sites. The project was funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and I received their support to help develop my project and undergo training in Beijing, China.

In addition to studying the Rio Negro turtles, I worked with youngsters in the region to teach them about the importance of conservation. Five years after completing the project, people still remember and understand the unique role of turtles in their environment. Recently CLP also supported me again with a scientific writing course in São Paulo, Brazil.

Through turtle population monitoring, beach management and environmental education work in the Abufari Biological Reserve (located in the Purus River, another tributary of the Amazon) my colleagues and I at WCS are now helping protect the largest turtle reproduction area in the Amazonas. Incorporating an important waterway connecting the western Amazon to Manaus, the reserve hosts nearly 2,000 nesting females annually, a number that has remained steady in the last few years.

In several protected areas along the nearby Negro River, monitoring involves local residents as their involvement is essential to conservation. Working with all ages we educate people in these areas about the importance of biodiversity, building upon local traditions with the aim of shrinking the turtle trade.

I am just beginning my career as a conservationist and while it may take years, one day I hope to see the status of turtle populations in the Amazon move from declining to stable and hopefully, expand. To get there requires more than my work; the next generation of conservationists in the Amazon region will need inspiration to become more aware of the environment and to have respect for the myriad of species here. Without this, conservation cannot continue.

Turtles sunning © Camila Ferrara


Counting sheep on the trail of the Mountain Ghost

Snow leopard (camera trap)

‘All three of us were exhausted. Wenzha, our Tibetan driver, stared at a flower in front of his feet. Edward, our young Chinese-American volunteer, sat with his head down. Surrounded by vertical cliffs we knew the only way to the next valley was to climb the 40° slope to the hilltop. Around halfway up I looked back to check on my partners. To my surprise I saw Edward start to walk back down, ‘What is he thinking?’ I thought. As I watched, he jumped back from the cliff, with an astonished look on his face, waving at me frantically. I hoped he hadn’t seen a bear. I began to walk as fast as possible towards him. As I drew closer, I read his lips:

“Snow leopard!”’

These are the words of Lingyun Xiao, Researcher at Peking University, who, together with her team, received CLP funding in 2013 for their project researching the availability of snow leopard prey in China’s Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve. The team recently submitted a preliminary report which contains exciting insights into what it is like to work in some of the most remote and rugged sites on earth. Their project started when they embarked on a trip with other collaborators to monitor blue sheep on the Tibetan Plateau. Blue sheep, which weigh up to 75kg and have massive horns – prized by game hunters – are a main prey species for snow leopards.

The team surveyed blue sheep and livestock in seven sites each year in different seasons in order to help develop a conservation strategy. Besides doing their own survey, the team worked alongside local community members. They helped the locals to start three of their own wildlife monitoring teams: one focusing on blue sheep and the other two on snow leopards.

Involving mountain communities in conservation

‘Working with communities to conserve wildlife is as impactful as it is rewarding. Gaining people’s trust is no easy task though and what might seem standard to conservationists can be quite baffling to the locals! The most important lesson we have learnt so far is to always be prepared to plan according to the real situation. It is very important to listen to the local herders’ voice before trying to involve them in conservation.’

Sanjiangyuan, located in Qinghai, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China, is one of the most important areas for snow leopard conservation. Although the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve covers a large portion of the area, local herders still live inside the reserve. Based on previous successes in Yunta village, Lingyun Xiao tried to involve the local community in her camera-trap research.

‘It was a decision made partly out of frustration. Last December we set out camera traps at eight sites. However, in the first village I found several of them had been taken by the villagers. Even when we’d asked them not to! Camera traps are quite mysterious for the local people and it’s understandable that they don’t want strange things showing up on their land. Involving them in field work can make a real difference.’

The team taught the community how a camera trap works and asked for their help to take care of the cameras, helping to build trust with people there. Apart from protecting their camera equipment, the team have found that a good relationship with local herders is important to ensure accurate data from their surveys.

‘To investigate the relationship between livestock and wildlife, livestock numbers are crucial data; however, it’s always a sensitive topic to discuss here. By chatting and interviewing we gained valuable information about the herders’ livelihood. By understanding each of the stories we heard, our research can give an answer a little closer to reality.’

Ideal conditions for the mountain ghost

In April 2014 the team were lucky enough to spot a whole family of snow leopards, after braving the terrible winter weather in Soujia on the Tibetan Plateau.

‘This kind of weather is hard for us, but it’s ideal for snow leopards that are looking to hunt. All day we kept our eyes busy, hoping to witness a snow leopard hunting for wild prey. We had almost given up hope when we caught a glimpse of two figures sneaking along a cliff. The big tails could undoubtedly only belong to one animal: the mountain ghost.’

At the head of the Mekong River, Zaduo County, Qinghai, is located within the largest continuous snow leopard habitat in China. An established team of 20 local herders deployed 40 research cameras in the area as part of a four-day trap camera training course in May 2014, to monitor snow leopards in the area. The study was supported by Shanshui Conservation Center, Peking University and the local township government in the county.

‘The village where the cameras were placed is also home to a sacred mountain named Namanula. To show their respect, the local people never dig medicinal herbs or caterpillar fungus around the mountain, even though the fungus is a major source of income for the community. In the local religious context, snow leopards are considered to belong to the mountain god, which is helpful in garnering even more support in the conservation of this iconic flagship species.’

Snow leopards as a flagship for landscape level conservation

While discussing external threats such as poaching and mining, the members of the village agreed that snow leopards could be used as a tool to protect the village. One herder concluded,

“We all see news about snow leopards frequently, on TV, newspaper and internet. Of course all of us want to protect our homeland, but before we didn’t know how. Now through the camera trap pictures we can tell outsiders what an important place we are protecting. Snow leopards could be one powerful tool.”

‘During a meeting, staff showed a map of snow leopard distribution in the world, and the local herders were fascinated by how important their homeland, the Tibetan Plateau, is for snow leopard conservation. Using his fist to demonstrate the Earth, one herder exclaimed, “Before we always thought snow leopards were everywhere in the world, but actually they only occupy a tiny, tiny piece of the earth’s surface.”’

For the final stage of this CLP-funded project, the team will continue their field work, collecting camera trap data in early 2015 and analysing the impact of livestock on the populations of blue sheep. In the future Lingyun Xiao and her team plan to carry out more analysis across several seasons and the team hope to be able to establish the density of snow leopards across the region.

‘We plan to continue our community-based monitoring even after the project. The surrounding villages show lots of interest on monitoring their own wildlife. They want to know their wildlife better and to use the baseline information about their wildlife to fight against external threats. We will try our best to support them.’

Some extracts from Lingyun Xiao’s report have previously appeared in an article published by the Snow Leopard Trust. Image credits: Snow leopard, Lingyun Xiao; Surveying blue sheep, Lingyun Xiao; Researchers and community members, Dawa Jiangcai; Snow leopard cubs in den, Edward Zhu.

Anglers in Argentina conserve sharks in Marine Protected Areas

Angler trained by the CLP team releasing a tagged bronze whaler shark in Mar del Plata

Martín Cuevas (“Involving Anglers As Key Stakeholders in a Shark Conservation Programme,” 2013)

Sharks are important top predators that preserve equilibrium in the seas. Due to overfishing, Argentina’s shark populations have dramatically decreased resulting in several species being categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Sport fishing is one important cause of shark mortality in Argentina. Our 2013 CLP funded team has been working to address this threat with great success thus far.

The aim of this project was to involve angler communities as key stakeholders in a shark conservation programme. By informing anglers of the importance of shark conservation and training them to tag sharks, the goal was to promote catch and release and decrease shark killing for sport.

Through our team’s efforts, 62 anglers were trained during six tagging workshops and seven individual meetings between October and December 2013. Work was concentrated in four Marine Protected Areas (MPA, 5,615 km2), integrating 13 coastal fishing sites along the coastline of Buenos Aires and Río Negro provinces (> 1,000 km), as well as two sites in southern Patagonia, Santa Cruz.

Workshops were divided into two parts: theoretical and practical. The theoretical side focused on the biology and ecology of sharks and the current conservation status of local populations. The practical component was related to tag-recapture methodology. Participants were given a tagging kit: dart tags, an applicator, and a procedure manual.

Following these workshops, 50 fishing groups now have a trained angler, 20% of which are actually tagging sharks. Thus far, a total of 1,151 tags were delivered to anglers and 196 sharks (seven species) were tagged and released.

Today, anglers no longer kill sharks during tournaments in three MPAs; in two MPAs, participation in a tournament requires tagging of all competitive sized sharks using our tags. The most recent victory was in March 2014 when shark tournaments in Ría Deseado Natural Reserve (Santa Cruz) stopped a 46 year old practice of killing sharks and now catch and release. This project demonstrates that anglers can be involved in shark conservation programmes as key stakeholders, with conservation messages tailored to match their motivation. The team works to keep involvement active, involve new anglers, and tag more sharks. We are thinking about the next steps of the project and are eager to continue.

For more information please visit the group’s Facebook page: Conservar Tiburones en Argentina or contact Martín at: