As the sun rises, Raseela Vadher and her team begin patrolling in Gir National Park, home to an estimated 523 Asiatic lions. From the time of her enrollment in the forest department of Gujarat, Vadher is said to have rescued close to 800 animals--400 pythons, 200 lions, pythons, crocodiles, monkeys and numerous trapped birds, among a long list of others. If an injured animal is spotted, Raseela is the person the team turns to for guidance, she heads the rescue mission, tranquillizing the animals with a dart gun, be it lion or leopard, as her team follows to treat the wound and then let the animal free in the forest. In 2013 when the citizens of Jalandhar village, in the Junagadh district of Gujarat, woke up to a leopard trapped in an under-construction well, it was Vadher who climbed into what looked like a giant bird cage and was lowered into the well. At a distance of just ten feet from the frantic leopard in the dingy pit, Vadher shot the big cat with a tranquilizer, got out of the cage to make sure the leopard was sedated, secured the animal with ropes so it could be lifted out, checked for injuries and later, released it back into the forest.
Cruising the jungle on motorbikes and trekking through dense forest cover as they poke and prod their way through, this daring team of female foresters are the only team of female forest guards in India. It was in 2007 that the Gujarat government, under Narendra Modi, made the decision to secure a thirty-three percent quota for women in service; Vadher was in the first batch of 43 women recruits and the endeavour was proven a success. “I told my husband before getting married that I would be working late hours in the jungle with men,” Vadher recalls to Times of India. “I said, ‘If you have a problem with this, we won’t get married.’”
Lauded as the ‘lion queens of India,’ these women know the forest better than anyone and have even been the subject of a television series by the Discovery Channel, aired in 2015. It’s not just Vadher, but the entire team of women who have performed their duties spectacularly in rescue missions, catching poachers and even taking care of an entire creche of abandoned cubs. Patrolling on her motorbike, forest guard Manisha intercepted a group of poachers while they were trying to escape; Kiran looks after 19 lions at the rescue hospital. It’s not always easy though. K. Khambhala recalls several occasions where the team has had to confront many angry villagers who have lost livestock and have even been attacked by animals themselves when animals have ventured into their fields and homes. With rapid industrialization and a growing population, more and more forest land has been encroached on for human use and animals entering villages and even cities are becoming increasingly common. The animals aren’t to blame in this case, expansion of cities, agriculture fields and deforestation for human needs is a major factor of environmental degradation, and the loss of natural habitat as well, who are then unable to survive on the small fragments leftover land.
India is home to some of the most beautiful animals in the world, yet on several occasions, economic growth has outweighed the need for forest conservation and animal protection. The women of Gir forest are doing their part for the protection of its animals, and are part of a model that can be implemented in other parts of the country. It’s even more commendable that in a country such as ours where in many places women aren’t allowed to have jobs, or even leave the house, that a team like the one in Gir has stepped up and proven their strength and courage in situations where even men have cowered while facing wild animals.
Initially, there were only eight women employed at Gir, now 46 female forest guards are running the show, leading rescues, looking after the health and diets of animals at their facility, organising awareness programmes and nature camps, even training officials of other states in the rescue and management of wildlife; with another 43 women are in training, the team is only going to grow. “Girls can do anything,” says Vadher. “We are not meant to sit at home and make rotis.” They are aptly called the ‘lion queens of India,’ being the protectors and guardians of Gir National Park, the last safe place of the endangered Asiatic lions.
Feature image courtesy of REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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