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India’s Purnima Devi Barman Wins 2024 Whitley Gold Award for Plans to Scale Up “Hargila” stork comeback through women-led advocacy

UK charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) recognises Dr Purnima Devi Barman from India with the 2024 Whitley Gold Award for her work to save the Greater Adjutant Stork – known locally as Hargila – whose numbers have quadrupled in Assam to more than 1,800 thanks to a dynamic campaign she masterminded and which she is expanding to include 20,000 women.

Charity Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, presented the Whitley Gold Award – the top prize – on 1 May at the Royal Geographical Society in a ceremony that marks three decades since the very first Whitley Award was presented and 25 years since the Princess’ involvement as Patron.

“Hargila were always misunderstood and treated as a bad omen or a disease carrier. If I didn’t do something, we were going to lose this bird forever. So, I made it my mission to save them”

The rural women, known as the “stork sisters” became the driving force in safeguarding nests as well as rebranding the Jurassic-looking scavenger from one-time bad omen to cultural symbol. Purnima is now doubling her 10,000-strong army of stork sister supporters and expanding from Assam to the state of Bihar and overseas to Cambodia, to cover all three remaining breeding grounds of the bird.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Ambassador and long-term supporter of the charity, said the growing network of winners represent some of the best conservation leaders in the world. “Whitley Award winners combine knowing how to respond to crises yet also bring communities and wider audiences with them.”

The stork holds significant ecological value as a vital pillar in Assam’s wetlands which comprise more than 15 percent of the state. Wetlands are facing the most rapid decline of all ecosystems around the world and are disappearing three times faster than forests, according to the United Nations. An important habitat for migratory birds and wildlife species, they also protect from heavy monsoon flooding which is more unpredictable amid climate change.

Photo credit: Carla Rhodes

Purnima now aims to more than double the global population of the bird to 5,000 as she ratchets up her campaigning – which until now has mainly spread by word of mouth – with her female “Hargila Army” of stork sisters. Their contribution “extends beyond merely safeguarding the bird,” according to Purnima, as it “empowers thousands of women, enhancing their livelihoods and catalysing social change within villages as women emerge as conservation leaders.”

Numbers of the Greater Adjutant had fallen to as low as an estimated 450 birds in Assam, the largest breeding colony for the bird, before Purnima intervened in 2007. The biologist, who now works at wildlife NGO Aaranyak in Guwahati, initially started a campaign to save it from extinction.

With a wingspan of 2.4 metres, the stork can reach 1.2 metres in height. It builds nests that it expands to as large as 1 metre wide as chicks grow. A scavenger of carrion, scraps and refuse, with a preference for landfills, it was reviled by villagers who viewed it as unsanitary and would cut trees where it nested to rid themselves of the birds. Once found across southern Asia and mainland southeast Asia, the Greater Adjutant population slumped to just 1 percent of historic numbers.

A 2017 Whitley Award winner, Purnima who has a Ph.D. in Greater Adjutants, initially faced hostility from the tree owners she confronted who were cutting nesting trees of her “graceful and cherished child.” But her advocacy for the bird – which plays a vital role in nutrient recycling and maintaining ecosystem health, consuming decaying organic matter – quickly garnered support of local women. They were keen to participate in the Hargila Army and to join her in protecting the nesting trees which are mainly located in private property. Membership has now become a badge of honour.

“Magic happens when we involve communities. The lives of women have changed from being homemakers to conservationists, now they are leading communities and empowering others. In the Hargila Army we have more than 10,000 women and they are all united for a cause.”

The women’s work delivered impressive results: nests increased to 250 in 2021 from just 27 in 2007 in one nesting colony in Kamrup District in northeast Assam which has since been recognised as an Important Bird Area. The project has rescued more than 500 Greater Adjutant chicks that fell from nests. The Hargila Army also planted 45,000 saplings near the stork nesting trees and wetland areas to increase nesting habitat. The IUCN now estimates the global population of the bird to be at least 3,180 with approximately 1,830 in Assam, 600 in Bihar and 750 birds in Cambodia.

The awareness activities quickly expanded to include producing textiles with the motifs of Greater Adjutants; baby showers at local temples to celebrate the arrival of stork chicks. Their outreach extended to schools. In one campaign, known as “village-to-village,” Purnima and the stork sisters make surprise visits to villages to run impromptu field visits with locals that can last all day.

Photo credit: ProntoProd

“Magic happens when we involve communities. Hargila Army – it’s like a sisterhood network among the women,” says Purnima. A mother of teenage twin daughters, she says “when children accompany their mothers in the Hargila Army, it imbues our mission with deeper meaning.”

“Communication is key when we talk about biodiversity. Many people feel they have to go far but conservation starts in your own backyard. Save the trees in your backyard – and save the wetlands.”

With her Whitley Gold Award, Purnima plans to:

  • To increase the population of Greater Adjutant Storks to 5,000 birds by 2030 by expanding work overseas to Cambodia via local community programmes as well as to the state of Bihar in East India. She also aims to reach out to Calcutta where historically there were large populations of Hargila which featured on the city’s coat of arms but where the stork is believed to have gone extinct.
  • expand her community-driven conservation initiatives to increase the number of Greater Adjutant breeding pairs by 20 percent in their current range within two years by safeguarding the four nesting colonies in Assam which are found in the Brahmaputra Valley. Purnima will create an awards scheme to protect the nesting trees which are owned by villagers who are mainly farmers growing rice, mustard plants and seasonal vegetables.
  • establish a collaborative network of WFN alumni, students, scientists and policymakers. This will include conservation education to more than 20,000 students in schools in Assam and a knowledge exchange programme between university students in Bihar university and University of Assam. They will also join forces with the Ethical Conservation Alliance – pioneered by fellow WFN alumni – to share experiences, and support conservation practitioners around the world to build respectful partnerships with local and Indigenous communities.
  • develop a rewilding training programme in partnership with the Assam Forest Department and other stakeholders.
  • expand and scale up the women empowerment activities of the Hargila Army by adding an additional 10,000 women, which is now regarded as a high-status brand by men and women. Through regular radio programmes and podcasts, Purnima – who is already a popular guest on local radio and TV shows – aims to reach 50,000 people, promoting storks and scavengers as symbols of cleanliness and sustainability. Social media campaigns will extend the conservation knowledge to over one million people.




The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 30 years it has channelled  £23 million to more than 200 conservationists across 80 countries.

An early pioneer in the sector WFN was one of the first charities to channel funding directly to projects led by in-country nationals. Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action.

WFN’s flagship prizes – Whitley Awards – are presented by charity Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, at a prestigious annual ceremony in London at the Royal Geographical Society. Winners receive funding, training, and profile boost, including short films narrated by WFN Ambassador Sir David Attenborough.

The 2024 Whitley Awards Ceremony is on Wednesday, 1 May at the RGS and streamed live to YouTube from 8 pm BST. The 2024 Whitley Award winners are:

  • Fernanda Abra  from Brazil who is pioneering the use of low-cost canopy bridges over highway BR-174 in the Amazon rainforest to restore connectivity for tree-dwelling mammals and save them from road collisions
  • Dr Aristide Kamla from Cameroon who is restoring African manatee habitat in Lake Ossa, addressing threats from invasive species and pollution
  • Naomi Longa from Papua New Guinea who is safeguarding coral reefs in Kimbe Bay and creating a network of marine protected areas led by local indigenous women
  • Leroy Ignacio from Guyana who is leading an expansion of one of the country’s first indigenous-led conservation movements to protect the Endangered Red siskin finch
  • Raju Acharya from Nepal who is bolstering protection for owls in central Nepal after spearheading a government-backed 10-year plan to safeguard the birds
  • Kuenzang Dorji from Bhutan who is protecting Endangered Gee’s golden langur and implementing solutions for farmers whose crops the primates are targeting



Carol Roussel, Head of Media Relations, Whitley Fund for Nature

E: [email protected]

T: 07379 019 804


Kate Stephenson, Head of Communications, Whitley Fund for Nature

E: [email protected]

T: 07460 136 571