Winner avatar
2024 Whitley GOLD Award
2019 Continuation Funding
2017 Whitley Award
Purnima Barman India Terrestrial
International scale-up: Doubling the numbers of Greater Adjutant Storks across their global range

Each year a past Whitley Award winner is selected to receive the Whitley Gold Award – worth £100,000 of project funding – in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation. Donated by the Friends of WFN.

Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist from Assam, India, won a Whitley Award in 2017 for her work to protect the Greater Adjutant Stork and its wetland habitat with her team at Aaranyak. Before her intervention, the stork – or ‘hargila’ in the local language – were thought of as smelly, dirty and unwanted vermin and their numbers had dwindled to an estimated 450 birds in the state. Changing attitudes and galvanising local people, primarily women, to safeguard nests, their numbers have now quadrupled to more than 1,800. Looking ahead, Purnima now wants to double the global population of the bird to 5,000 by 2030, working across the stork’s range in India and Cambodia. 


The Greater Adjutant can be seen on the coat of arms for the city of Calcutta, where the bird was once found in large numbers and revered for keeping the city clean and clear of snakes. Sadly, they are now believed to be extinct there. A shift in image owing to the bird’s preference for scavenging carrion, scraps, and refuse, often from landfills, saw them reviled by local people and villagers who came to view them as unsanitary and would cut nesting trees to rid themselves of the birds. Formerly found across southern Asia and mainland southeast Asia, the Greater Adjutant population has slumped to just 1% of historic numbers.


The Greater Adjutant Stork brings value to the landscapes that it inhabits, including through its penchant for consuming decaying organic matter. Far from negatively impacting the hygiene of its environment, the bird plays a vital role in nutrient recycling and maintaining ecosystem health. The storks are an essential ecological pillar in Assam’s wetlands which comprise more than 15% 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.


Purnima’s advocacy for the stork quickly garnered support from local women, who were keen to participate in the Hargila Army and join her in protecting the nesting trees, which are mainly located in private property. Membership has now become a badge of honour. Purnima hopes to expand the Hargila Army – or ‘stork sisters’ – to 20,000 members. 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.” Herself a mother to teenage twin daughters, Purnima says “when children accompany their mothers in the Hargila Army, it imbues our mission with deeper meaning.” The government of Assam celebrated 7th of October, 2022 as “Adjutant day.” This signifies that this bird has secured its priority place in the Government conservation agenda.

A Whitley Award winner in 2017, Purnima received Continuation Funding in 2019. With the support of WFN and other partners, Purnima and her team have delivered impressive results:

  • The local Greater Adjutant Stork population in Assam has increased from 750 to more than 1,800, making it currently home to the largest Greater Adjutant nesting colony in the world.
  • Nests have increased to 250 in 2021 from just one nesting colony of 27 in 2007 located in the Kamrup District in northeast Assam, which has since been recognised as an Important Bird Area and secured under the Indian Biodiversity Act.
  • The project has rescued more than 500 Greater Adjutant chicks that have fallen from nests.
  • 45,000 saplings have been planted 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 and in 2023 reclassified the species from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Near Threatened’, a testament to the success of Purnima’s work.
  • The ‘Hargila Army’ conservation movement has now engaged 10,000 local women in advocacy, education and empowerment activities
  • ~1,000 women have been trained and supported to develop sustainable livelihoods such as weaving and horticulture.

With her Gold Award, Purnima and team will:

  • Scale up conservation efforts to the state of Bihar in East India and into Cambodia to encompass the global geographic range of the stork – and increase the population to 5,000 birds by 2030
  • Grow community-driven conservation initiatives to bolster the number of Greater Adjutant breeding pairs by 20% within two years by safeguarding the four nesting colonies in Assam
  • Expand support of local women to grow the ‘Hargila Army’ of stork advocates from 10,000 to 20,000 participants
  • Establish a collaborative network of WFN alumni, students, scientists and policymakers. This will involve providing conservation education to more than 20,000 Assamese students and a knowledge exchange programme between students in Bihar University and University of Assam
  • 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



  • Hargila means ‘bone-swallower’ in Assamese.
  • With a wingspan of 2.4 metres, the Hargila can reach 1.2 metres in height.
  • The storks build nests that are expanded to as large as 1 metre wide as the chicks grow

Find out more about Purnima’s past projects, supported by her 2017 Whitley Award and subsequent rounds of Continuation Funding, here.