Greater Adjutant Stork or Hargila in Guwahati, Assam

Ghouls among the Garbage – The Greater Adjutants of Guwahati

The Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) is one of the largest storks found in India. With its menacing, almost prehistoric reptilian appearance owing to its unfeathered, blotchy head and neck, baggy crop, massive bill, and glowering yellow eyes, it is not a hot favourite to win any avian beauty pageants. Which is a nice way of saying this is a rather ugly bird. But, as in a fairy-tale trope, if the ugly are allowed to redeem themselves through glorious deeds, the Greater Adjutant does itself no favours. It has adapted to leading a ghoulish life, feeding on carrion, offal, and carcasses, joining vultures (if any survive in its neighbourhood) at the feast. As any birder travelling northeast towards the birding paradises of Arunachal Pradesh will tell you, the first stop to tick some lifers off your checklist is in Guwahati; specifically, a giant garbage dump on the outskirts of the capital city. Arun Raghuraman was there in early 2024, and he relates his encounter with Hargila – the bone-swallower.

Greater Adjutant storks or Hargila in Guwahati, Assam
The enormous Greater Adjutant storks at home amid the mountains of garbage and fellow scavengers

When I first started watching birds, it was partly so that I could have an excuse to head into pristine forests, smell the clean air, and listen to the quiet sounds while trying to catch glimpses of beautifully coloured creatures. I know better now that nature finds a way to co-exist – and sometimes thrive – in the most unlikely places.

I was about to head out to Arunachal Pradesh for some intense birding in Northeast India, but the first stop after landing in Guwahati, Assam, was a dump-yard on the outskirts of the city to get a few photographs of the Greater Adjutant.


Hargila, Assamese for bone-swallower, is the name given to the Greater Adjutant stork. Its closest cousins are the smaller Lesser Adjutant, which is also found in India, and the Marabou Stork, which is found in Africa and also has a reputation for scavenging on animal carcasses.

Greater Adjutant Storks

This was not my first time watching birds in a dump-yard. I have been to a carcass dump on the outskirts of Bikaner to look at vultures. I have seen Marabou Storks on a bend in the Mara river where tens of carcasses of dead animals washed up. And I have seen a bunch of not-too-common birds in different sewers quite a number of times, but I was definitely not prepared for the sights in here.

The road leading up to the dump is bad, and the moment you roll down the window, foul smells waft in along with a host of flies. Finally, getting to the dump itself, the first views were of dozens of Greater Adjutants circling in the sky. I then realised this was not a carcass dump, but a garbage dump.

Greater Adjutant Stork or Hargila
Close up, a Greater Adjutant stork has a menacing appeal

These massive and ugly birds (one of the first questions that pops on Google when you search for ‘Greater Adjutant’ is: Why was the Greater Adjutant called ‘a prodigy of ugliness’?) flourish in the garbage dumps, scavenging alongside human scavengers while sharing space with stray dogs, cows, and crows.

A fire burning in the background added to the sights and smells as some of the birds moved along foraging for food in the filth amidst the smoke. Some in our group of photographers had their masks up. I had forgotten mine, but I got over the regret as soon as I saw the sanitary workers in the garbage dumps sitting among the heaps of garbage along with their families. A sudden disturbance startled the birds and got them airborne. As we moved further to get a closer picture of a couple that were still there, we spotted dozens more in a nearby field.

Hiding behind piles of garbage, we got a few more shots of the group, some of them against a green background. This group of birds seemed to have had their fill and were resting in the afternoon under the harsh sun.

Our group of travellers had enough of this ambience, so we moved carefully back to our cars, watching our step as we picked our way through wet garbage and viscous black liquids flowing on the ground. I spoke to one of the other birders about how this environment felt quite hostile for these rare birds, and he responded that they looked comfortable. I had seen a Greater Adjutant almost a decade ago in Kaziranga, fishing alongside other water birds at a distance, and had imagined them to be found in similar conditions as other storks. I now stand corrected.

Known locally as Hargila (bone swallowers) but called Adjutant in English owing to their military-like gait, their population has declined with improvements in sanitation. This beautifully ugly environment, while probably harmful for the birds due to the teeming plastic waste and other hygiene issues, allowed them to thrive alongside other urban scavengers.

Back from the trip after nearly a month, when I finally put these pictures up on social media, Bijoy shared with me the story of the efforts on the Greater Adjutant’s conservation. The Hargila Army, under the leadership of wildlife biologist Purnima Devi Barman, continues to mobilise over 10,000 women to save the Greater Adjutant stork by sustainably creating a community-led conservation programme with women spearheading the efforts. Hargila, the word for these storks in Assamese, means bone-swallower. Before Dr Barman’s intervention, the epithet had triggered widespread superstition and rumour-mongering about the birds, branding them as vectors of disease and death. It took a concerted social sensitisation effort to turn the situation around. The large numbers in which the storks congregated at that dump-yard were apparently the results of the Hargila Army’s efforts over the last decade.

Text and photos by Arun Raghuraman. Follow his work on Instagram and his blog

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