The Gir forest is the sole home of the Asiatic lion in the wilderness and is one of the most important protected areas in the world.
But did you know there were only 12 Asiatic lions in Gir forest before the area was declared a protected zone in the year 1900? Today, thanks to some amazing conservation efforts by the government over the years, this number has risen to 523! Much of the credit for the increase goes to Gir’s forest guards and its animal rescue team – who are all women!
Formerly the hunting reserve of the Nawabs of Junagadh, Gir Forest is the largest compact tract of dry deciduous forest in Gujarat. Gir was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1965 by the Government of India and given National Park status ten years later. Other than the charismatic Asiatic lion, the park also has a substantial population of leopards, vast herds of deer, langurs, snakes, hyenas, small jungle cats, and crocodiles.
The recruitment of women as wildlife rescuers began almost by accident. In 2007, Gujarat became the first state in India to employ women in its forest department by creating a 33% quota for them. The authorities reckoned the women employed would prefer taking desk jobs in the department but, proving them wrong, the women chose to take on the tough but rewarding jobs on the frontlines of wildlife rescue.
Every year, more and more women undergo intensive training before joining perhaps the only women’s brigade in the world that is directly involved in the wildlife management of big cats
One of the first to be recruited, Raseela Wadher is the toughest woman in the group and heads the entire wildlife rescue team.
The Lion Queens, as this busy women’s brigade is known, have rescued 627 lions over the years. This makes them the only lion rescue team in the world to have achieved such a feat.
From helping mugger crocodiles trapped in mud and leopards stuck in wells, to treating wounded lions and fostering tiny cubs abandoned by their mothers, these women have done it all.
Their challenging work also includes arresting poachers, placating irate villagers, retrieving wayward pythons, and tranquilizing rogue monkeys that cause havoc in local villages.
The all-women team rescues as many as 600 animals annually, which means almost 2 rescues a day! But their favourite part of the job is tending to vulnerable little cubs and nurturing other baby animals till they’re old enough to survive on their own.
None of the women come from privileged backgrounds; some have to overcome opposition from their families to work as forest guards. Other than the challenge of taking on jobs in a traditionally male-dominated department, they must also overcome the dangers inherent in interacting with extremely dangerous wild animals almost every day.
In fact, the wildlife TV channel, Discovery, has featured them in a gripping documentary, The Lion Queens of India. The film follows these fearless women as they go about their work preserving the Asiatic lion in its habitat, bringing alive some of the most daring wildlife rescue sequences in India.
Raseela Wadher, the 28-year-old who spearheads the rescue team, has found herself in danger several times. In an interview to the Times of India, she said:
“Once I had gone with my team to rescue an injured lion. We were to tranquilize the beast. As soon as we fired the shot containing the tranquilizer, it almost attacked us. But we kept our cool and slowly walked back to our vehicles. The lion too slowly retreated into the forest.”
Despite this, Wadher has participated in over 200 lion rescues. She was even ready to opt out of marriage if her prospective husband did not agree to her working late hours in the jungle.
Kiran Pithiya, 25, records the movement of and changes in the behaviour of lions, other than participating in rescue operations. Kiran is responsible for saving 19 lions. She worked through most of her pregnancy and was scouring the forest on her bike well into her third trimester. Recounting an experience in an interview to the Times of India, she said:
“Recently, a lioness gave birth and I had to keep watch on the newborn cubs and movement of their mother. One day, I did not realise that it had turned dark. I was leaving the area on my bike alone when a lioness began chasing me. I immediately realised that I was in danger and decided to signal to the lioness that I am a forester. I turned my bike around and made a hud-hud sound. The lioness understood that I was a forester and turned back. If I had tried to speed up and escape, the lioness would have attacked and killed me.”
True to their given name, the Lion Queens of India are indeed fearlessly and tirelessly working towards preserving the population of Asiatic lions on the planet, and looking after other wild animals and their young who also call the Gir forest their home. By employing them for these posts, the forest department has not only empowered the rural women of Gir but has also ensured a more compassionate environment for the animals.