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

From the Himalayas to the Czech Republic

By: Martina Anandam (India)

Martina with owlets © Martina Anandam

Last year I hosted my friend and fellow CLP alumnus, Felipe Ennes Silva, for a CLP Learning Exchange Programme in India. The experience provided many stories to tell over dinner and on rainy nights. This year, I won a CLP Travel Grant to present at two conferences in the Czech Republic. I resolved to make this trip a lasting adventure and an experience equally fit enough to be etched in my memory.

Petr Colas, my friend and Director of Ostrava Zoo in the Czech Republic invited me to attend the Old World Monkeys Meeting at Ostrava Zoo and the Prosimian Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) Meeting. I readily accepted his invitation. After a 20 hour flight, I was very happy to shed off the accumulated claustrophobia and march into Prague.  Lined with historical sites on one side and graffiti ridden walls on the other, the city is a perfect conglomeration of the present and days gone by. Jana, the primate curator of Ostrava Zoo picked me up and kindly drove me to Prague Zoo. We were to spend the day there and be amused! I enjoyed looking at the polar bears, orang-utans and the nocturnal primate exhibits. I am not much of a zoo enthusiast but this was an extraordinary experience. After a tired day at the zoo, Jana drove me to my destination, Ostrava Zoo.

Ostrava is a city about 280 km from Prague and a good four hour drive away. I was only too happy to settle down to sleep when my interest was piqued by the sound of a constant chatter. I soon discovered that I was right next to the flamingo exhibit. The beautiful Ostrava Zoo, established back in 1948 was then 6 hectare property. It is now a booming zoological park of 350 animal species spread over 100 hectares. The speciality of Ostrava Zoo is its Himalayan exhibit, Chitwan, which houses Himalayan black bears and Himalayan langurs. All langurs were faithfully christened with Indian names such as Shiela, Delhi and Balachandra with the fair exception of Baruska, Balachandra’s mom. This is a good example of globalization, a Czech mom with an Indian son!

The Old World Monkey conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with zoo keepers and zoo biologists from all over the country. It was insightful to learn the nuances of captive breeding and management and opened up a whole new vista for me. The opportunity to present my work on the Himalayan langur and reiterate the importance of on-the-ground conservation was encouraging. The Prosimian TAG Meeting was equally interesting and I got to meet up with some of my old professors at the lovely Plzen Zoo. The conference offered an opportunity to meet with potential donors from zoos from all over Europe, providing me with a platform to make my case for conservation in the Himalaya. I am extremely thankful for the fundraising opportunity.

Basilica in Olomouc © Martina Anandam

While the conferences demanded my attention, I managed little escapades to Zlin and Olomouc zoos. Zlin is a beautiful city and the heart of the world famous Bata factory.  My time in Zlin was further spiced up when the zoo keepers kindly allowed me to feed the Bactrian camels and the gentle tapirs as well as tape the ‘behind-the-scenes’ action as they vaccinated meerkats and bathed elephants. A visit to Olomouc Zoo was the cherry on my travel cake. Olomouc Zoo, located right next to a world famous Basilica, is set right in the middle of a postcard town. I took a break from the zoo and had a little sojourn to the Basilica. The old age church, built to fulfil a promise to a patron saint, was full of history and art and more than I could have asked for to complete my eventful afternoon.

I was happy to get back to my mountains in India as we have a lot to do there from keeping black bears from farms to studying new species of langurs across the Himalaya! (Read more of our work here).

The places I’ve been to visit, the people I met and the lovely memories will forever linger in my mind.  A CLP Travel Grant made this possible and I am forever grateful. I hope all CLP alumni get to realize such adventures and experiences through these useful grants! Thank you, CLP!

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


Dreaming of prosperity and sustainability in the Himalayas

Malari tribal village in NDBR

After finishing his Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation, Conservation Leadership Programme Alumnus Pramod Kumar Yadav embarked on an enthusiastic career studying the biodiversity, topography and spirituality of the Himalayas. Here, he shares his experiences and reveals his delight at being granted a 2015 CLP Award…

The first time I visited the Himalayan Mountains was with my school friends for an educational expedition when I was 14 years old. Before then I had only read about the mountains, having been born and educated in the plains of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

This trip was the first time I got to experience the high mountains, deep gorges, beautiful valleys of the Himalayas and meet the people who lived there.

During this expedition, I pondered a lot about the education of the region’s children and about the livelihoods and prosperity of the mountain dwellers because I did not see any signs of agricultural fields, industry setup or educational infrastructure in those areas.

To me this seems strange, because I was born and spent my childhood in a village surrounded by vast agricultural lands without mountains and forests.

During my Master’s dissertation, I got an opportunity to work with the indigenous Garo community in the eastern part of the Indian Himalayan region. The people here live in poverty, relying on shifting cultivation (which gives little return) and a collection of forest products as the main livelihoods in an area that lacks basic facilities for education, health care, or most importantly any alternative avenues for income generation.

I believe it was these early experiences that brought me closer to the profession of conservation biology and inspired me to work for the prosperity and sustainability of the people and towards an eco-friendly Himalaya.

Caterpillar fungus

I started my professional career by exploring biodiversity, environmental issues and scarcity of local communities in the Indian central Himalayas in 2012. In July last year, I visited the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve with my colleagues Mr. Subhajit Saha and Dr Ashish K. Mishra (both are team members of the CLP project) to assess different environmental issues arising from several development projects in the area.

We met with the local communities and tried to assess the impact of the developments on both the people and the biodiversity of the Biosphere Reserve. It was during this assignment that we came to hear about another issue in the area: the harvesting and trade of the caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) locally known as Kira Jari, which is used as an aphrodisiac and to treat a range of health problems.

Collecting the fungus from its natural habitat is not an easy task. According to those we spoke to, some people climb to altitudes as high as 3,500 to 4,000 meters to obtain the rare fungus.

Much like gold, it is worth a lot, but the work required to obtain the Kira Jari is not for the meek.

But as one of our respondents asked us: “Why would I migrate to Delhi or Dehradun to work in hotels when I can earn in one season what I can make over there in two years?”

But there is a dark side to the fungus collection. In addition to having to brave harsh climates to find it, its rarity means that there are no guarantees that a collector will find anything substantial at all.

Some villagers return with nothing to show for their weeks of hardship in high altitude snow fields and many even fall ill as a result of the exertion.

Searching for the fungus involves lying on your front, elbows dug into the scree and snow, scouring the ground in front of you for nothing larger than the stalk of an apple. It is freezing cold and there is a howling wind, making your lungs ache. People often return to the village with snow-blindness, painful joints and breathing problems.

The business is also generating rivalries between collectors and the competition is often violent. Entire villages battle one another for the right to collect Kira Jari in certain areas. There are other risks too as although it is legal to collect the fungus, it is not legal to sell it.

Last year, after tireless efforts from all of our team in preparing an application, we were thrilled to receive an e-mail from the Conservation Leadership Programme to tell us that we had been awarded the funding we needed to start exploring the impacts of fungus harvesting activities on both the mountain communities and ecosystems.

My reaction to the news was, “Oh! Finally we made it!”

Our dream is for a sustainable and prosperous Himalaya and at last I felt like we were making progress towards this dream.

I have a very special place in my heart for the CLP award because it will provide us the first international platform to interact with other leading conservation professionals around the world, not to mention a huge boost in morale. We all are young natural resource professionals and this award will be immensely constructive towards our greater research goals.

They say that the greatness of India is a gift from the Himalayas. This is quite logical given the immense influence that the world’s greatest mountains have on everything from climate to culture that is Indian.

It is also a well-known fact that if we adversely change the ecology and the topography of these mountains, it might just trigger several disasters that could have the potential to change the demography of the region towards a catastrophic collapse. Phenomena like floods, droughts, changing river courses, the retreat of glaciers etc. have already been observed in the region.

Sustainability therefore, is paramount when we plan to exploit the natural resources of the Himalayas – to make sure that these remarkable mountains can continue to give its wonderful gift.

This post was originally posted on Fauna & Flora International‘s website.

Supporting high fliers, and other life forms…

Vulture group

In its original guise back in 1985, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), as it is known today, funded only a brace of projects, both focused on birds. The programme has grown and evolved significantly over time and now our teams’ work covers a broad range of taxonomic groups. Nevertheless, during its distinguished history, almost one third of the projects supported by the CLP have related to threatened bird species.

Generally speaking, conservationists tend to have some interest in birds, or at least to understand and appreciate their importance. Over the centuries, birds have been bringers of good fortune, harbingers of death, symbols of love and hope. They have been adored, persecuted and widely studied, but rarely ignored. The relative abundance and accessibility of the more common species means that birds frequently provide the catalyst that sparks an interest in nature among the wider public. Almost half of the world’s 10,000 bird species have a practical value in our lives. Many are economically important: colonial powers thrived on the guano trade; birds consume insects that would otherwise eat our crops; they disperse seeds and pollinate plants; and they are worth billions of dollars to the food industry, tourism and trade. Evidently, bird conservation is no longer just about birds, as two recent CLP-funded projects illustrate.

Carrion poisoning

In Southeast Asia, vulture numbers have been in free fall, plummeting by over 90% since 1992. The cause and speed of the decline initially left specialists baffled, until researchers discovered that the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, used by vets on cattle, was lethally toxic to vultures that consumed the flesh of dead livestock. Veterinary diclofenac was banned in India and Nepal in 2006, but was immediately substituted with another form of the drug, and vultures continued to die.

Waste disposal

Vultures may not be the prettiest or most popular of birds, but they provide a crucial service by devouring rotting carcasses that would otherwise pose human health risks and attract packs of rabid dogs. The socio-economic impact of a sharp reduction in vulture numbers is considerable. It has been calculated that the demise of vultures and subsequent increase in rabid dogs in India may have resulted in around 50,000 additional human deaths from rabies, at a probable cost of over US$30 billion to the nation’s economy. A team of young Nepalese conservationists supported by the CLP and Save Our Species completed a project that had fed into a regional campaign to save Asia’s vultures from extinction. The team surveyed vulture nests to record breeding success rates and also monitored potential threats (intentional poisoning, habitat destruction, electrocution from power lines, nest disturbance and direct attacks on vultures), but the main success of the project was its contribution to the removal of diclofenac from the market and the promotion of an alternative drug, meloxicam.

Safe landing

The combined efforts of the Nepalese team, other conservation organisations, local government, the veterinary fraternity and local communities led to Nawalparasi district in central Nepal, on the border with India, being declared a Diclofenac Free Zone (DFZ). The DFZ was one of 11 such zones, declared roughly simultaneously, which collectively cover an area totalling over 22,000 km2 (approximately the size of New Jersey or Wales) and constitute the world’s first provisional vulture safe area.

Two birds, one zone

Another CLP-funded team faced a different challenge. Rather than ranging across whole continents, their target species – the chestnut-bellied hummingbird and Niceforo’s wren, are confined to the Chicamocha Canyon, nestling in the Colombian Andes. This arid landscape, characterised by spiny shrubs and cacti, has been subjected to considerable land fragmentation, burning for agriculture, and goat grazing, which have destroyed all but 1.5% of the original dry forest.

In addition to tackling the principal threats to these birds, the team also set about protecting areas of suitable habitat. The findings of its surveys and ecological studies led to the site being designated as an Important Bird Area – an internationally recognised status highlighting it as a priority site for the conservation of birds, as well as other animals and plants.

Spreading their wings

Two years later, the team went one step further and, collaborating closely with landowners and a national NGO (Fundación ProAves), secured an area of land under more formal protection as a natural bird reserve. They subsequently set up their own organisation, Fundación Conserva, to strengthen conservation efforts in the region by identifying and safeguarding more suitable areas of habitat and involving the local community in their activities.

Not strictly for the birds

Although some members of the conservation community tend to get into a flap about the amount of funding directed towards bird conservation, the reality is that bird conservation is often the gateway to the protection of many other species, ecosystems and communities.