by Rashmi Bhat
An endangered species makes a living off people’s garbage
“Paltan Bazaar to Boragaon”, I told my cab driver. “Where in Boragaon?” he enquired. “The massive dumping ground”, I said. His smile betrayed his thought: “Another one of those crazy tourists”. Still, he drove me to Boragaon. Mid-way, he got curious. “Why would anyone come all the way to Guwahati to see a dumping ground?” he asked me. I excitedly gushed , “The hargilla! ”
And there it was: the Greater Adjutant Stork. Gorgeous wing span, a pink bald head, an abnormal-looking neck pouch and a slow walk. And surrounded by filth. “Wow”, I said. I heard young girls working at the dumping ground chuckling around me. Here I was struggling to cover my nose while simultaneously looking through my binoculars. I waded through the filth trying to breathe as little as possible to try and take a closer look. Surrounded by landfill workers going about their business, this severely endangered stork calmly fed from the dump once the workers picked and chose what they couldsalvage from a new truckload of garbage.
Once very common even in the city of Kolkata, the breeding populations of these storks are down to the last 1000 and are now limited only to Cambodia, and to Assam and Bihar in India. Garbage dumps on the outskirts of Guwahati are the feeding ground for possibly half of the world’s population of this species. Guwahati is rapidly urbanizing. And that means less and less space for the Greater Adjutant. Wetlands are being filled and nesting trees are being cut. It doesn’t help that the huge stork is a scavenger. Along with having to contend with the notions of people that it is a “dirty” bird, the food for the stork at the dumping site is often laced with poison. It isn’t surprising that the multitude of problems for the stork has rapidly decreased its numbers.
But there is reason for hope. Local NGOs and the Forest Department are working hard to conserve these majestic birds. Nesting colonies are being protected and chicks are being rescued and rehabilitated. Awareness programmes are being carried out. But much remains to be done.
Driving away, my cab driver said, “We call these birds borchokla . Earlier I used to see them in my backyard. Now they are only here in the dumping ground. But whatever you say the smell is so bad that even after the smell is gone, the bad smell still remains in the nose”.
The average height of the Greater Adjutants is about 5 ft. They can have a massive wingspan that can measure more than 8 ft.
Out of the eight species of storks found in India, the Greater Adjutants are the rarest. They are also globally endangered.
The other species of the stork found in India are the Asian Openbill Stork, Black Stork, Black-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Painted Stork, White Stork and the Woolly-necked Stork.
Adjutant is a military rank. They were first called ‘Adjutants’ because their walk resembles the walk of military officers.
The Greater Adjutant Stork is mainly a scavenger. In the 19th century, its role as a scavenger was so beneficial to the sanitation of Calcutta (now Kolkata) that it was on the emblem of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.
Picture: Greater Adjutant Storks and others at Boragaon dumping ground, Guwahati.
Credit: P. Jeganathan