Mongabay-India

Population rise a bittersweet win for greater adjutant storks, as poison enters their diet

  • After the population of greater adjutant storks rose in Bhagalpur, Bihar, stork deaths are being noted across the district, due to the consumption of poisoned rats and fish.
  • Local bird experts and conservationists allege that farmers use rat poison to curb crop losses as rats invade their fields, and fishermen often use poison to catch fish.
  • While the Divisonal Forest Officer of Bhagalpur awaits reports from the disease diagnostic laboratory in Kolkata about the cause of stork deaths, efforts to raise awareness about the use of poison to catch rats and fish, are underway.

Community conservation efforts in recent years have resulted in an increase in the population of the greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius), locally known as garuda, in Bhagalpur district, Bihar. In the last two decades, with active involvement of the local community and the forest department, the population of greater adjutant storks in Bhagalpur has increased from 78 in 2006-07 to more than 600 in 2023-2024, confirmed officials from the state forest department and Arvind Mishra, a local bird expert and Bihar’s state coordinator of Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN).

Mishra had spotted 18 nests of the greater adjutant stork in 2006-07. He notes that this number has increased to 125 during the breeding season of 2024. In fact, nesting sites have been spreading outside Bhagalpur to Purnea, Khagaria and Madhepura districts.

The global population of greater adjutant storks is now estimated to be roughly 1,360-1,510. In 2006, this count stood at 650-800 individuals, according to data from Wetlands International. The greater adjutant is listed as ‘near threatened’ as in the IUCN redlist. It was downlisted last year from the ‘endangered’ category and the population is ‘increasing’ according to the IUCN.

Community conservation efforts in recent years have resulted in an increase in the population of the greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius), in Bhagalpur district, Bihar. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.
Community conservation efforts in recent years have resulted in an increase in the population of the greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius), in Bhagalpur district, Bihar. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.

Bhagalpur’s Kadwa Diara floodplains (riverine belt of Koshi river) and neighbouring areas constitute the third-most popular breeding region for greater adjutant storks in the world after Assam and Cambodia.

However, the increase in adjutant numbers in Bhagalpur is a bittersweet one, as the stork now faces a new threat of poisonous substances spreading in its food and water sources. Poisoned fish, rodents and reptiles, have killed more than six birds in this region in the last month alone. Earlier this year, there were some stray cases of greater adjutant juveniles and chicks that were found dead in their breeding nests.

The death of these birds worried conservationists, local residents involved in community conservation, forest officials and others who have been working on the ground to save the local population for years.

How poison enters the storks’ diet

The greater adjutant’s ideal habitat is partially dry wetlands abundant in fish, riverbeds, swamps, paddy fields, and stagnant pools, Mishra observed in his field experience in Kadwa Diara. They mostly prefer tall peepal trees close to paddy fields for nesting and breeding.

“Four greater adjutant storks died near Kankhai river. They ate either rats killed by poison, poisoned fishes or drank water suspected to be containing poisonous substances. We are not sure what exactly caused their deaths,” Mishra told Mongbay-India. He added that after this incident, three more greater adjutant storks died in the Kadwa Diara region. Some chicks and juveniles were also found dead during nesting and breeding period.

Mishra said he received information that fishermen are using poison (Carbofuran, also known by its trade name Furadan), to catch fish in ponds and river waters. Some farmers mix poison with grains to kill rats in their fields to prevent crop loss. This, along with pesticides and insecticides trickle into nearby water bodies, and pose a risk to greater adjutant storks, he shared. Mishra ruled out food scarcity as a possible cause of their death in fields and nests.

The poison used by fishermen to catch fish in ponds and river waters are become a threat to the storks as they consume their food from the same source. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.
The poison used by fishermen to catch fish in ponds and river waters are become a threat to the storks as they consume their food from the same source. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.

He recalled when three greater adjutants died of electrocution from high-power transmission near the nesting tree two years ago. A top forest official took notice and a one kilometre underground cable was laid and insulated wires replaced in front of the nesting tree to protect the storks.

Rajiv Kumar, a resident of Kadwa Diara, who is part of a local youth group called Garuda Saviours that works for the conservation of greater adjutants, said that st­­orks were dying in such numbers for the first time in Kadwa Diara since 2006, when local conservation efforts began. Deepak Kumar Kushwaha and Prashant Kumar, also from Garuda Saviours, suggested that they were succumbing after consuming poisoned fishes and rats. The storks are considered ‘friends of the farmer’, as their diet contains rats that damage crops. However, local conservationists allege that they are becoming victims of poison used by farmers to kill rats. “We have rescued more than 15 greater adjutants this year after their condition deteriorated following eating poisonous foods. We gave them first aid and treatment but seven or eight died.”

Shweta Kumari, Divisonal Forest Officer of Bhagalpur, had urgently directed for an enquiry into the deaths. “We have sent samples to Regional Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory (RDDL) Kolkata for test report and also collected water sample for water quality test and sent for laboratory test to State Pollution Control Board in Patna. But I can’t say anything on cause of deaths until receive the report from laboratory. We will take action and measures soon after receiving report.” The report is expected to come next month, according to the official.

A local youth group called Garuda Saviours that works for the conservation of greater adjutants, administering first aid and treatment. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.
A local youth group called Garuda Saviours that works for the conservation of greater adjutants, administering first aid and treatment. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.

“The dead birds all showed typical conditions of poisoning in their liver, intestine and other organs in the post-mortem. It may be result of slow poisoning or one time poisoning,” said Dr. Sanjeet Kumar, a veterinary officer of the Bhagalpur forest division, who conducted the post-mortem of seven storks.

Kumar disclosed that this was the first time such a post-mortem was conducted. “I found mouse hair and portions of rats in the stomach. Rat and fish are some of the favourite foods of greater adjutants.” Kumar also said that it is normal for newly hatched chicks to fall out of nests and die. In such cases, no post-mortems are conducted.

Mitigating future stork deaths in Bhagalpur

Mishra, who has been closely monitoring greater adjutants since 2006, said that efforts to raise awareness about the usage of poisons and pesticides are underway.

A greater adjutant stork. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.
A greater adjutant stork. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.

“We are planning to encourage farmers to use mousetraps which will be distributed free of cost, to catch rats alive and feed them to greater adjutants. It will discourage the use of poison to kill rats that damage crops. We will also install owl nesting boxes near farm fields. This is the best solution to check and control rats.” Mishra added. Youth, farmers and women are actively engaged in the conservation of the storks, and fishermen are also expected to be involved soon. “We will create awareness among them not to use poison to catch fish.”

To improve food availability for the storks, a garuda restaurant has been proposed as part of the state government’s initiative. The garuda restaurant is a 500 ft ×40 ft water body in which pisciculture will be practiced near the adjutants’ breeding sites for them to have access to food, Mishra added.


Banner Image
:  A greater adjutant. Image by Mohd Imran Khan for Mongabay.

Exit mobile version