A new film by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media tells the story of a wildlife photographer who travels to India intent on documenting the rarest stork on Earth, but soon discovers a conservation hero and her inspiring efforts to rally a community to save it.

Hargila documents 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. The population numbers around 1,200 individuals. Greater Adjutants are called “hargila” in the Assamese language, which literally translates as “bone swallower.”

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. Most 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.

The 28-minute film tells the story of the remarkable conservation leader, Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, and the movement she has inspired to protect the birds, which are now increasing their numbers locally.

“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 Cornell Lab cinematographer Gerrit 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, and it’s available on the Cornell Lab’s YouTube channel.

A version of this article appears in the March/April 2022 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

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