The Cat Women of Gir Forest: Modi's pride of women guards is working wonders in the Asiatic lion's last abode
Remember the young woman forest guard Narendra Modi so proudly described to FICCI'S women entrepreneurs in Delhi on April 8? "More than lions, visitors are amazed at the sight of this gutsy girl who fearlessly walks amid a pride of wild lions," he said.
Just 26 years old and already a veteran of the Gujarat government's extraordinary initiative to protect the only natural abode of the Asiatic lion, Vadher is that young woman. From a poor family of Junagadh's Bhanduri village, she signed up as a forest guard in August 2008 and has by now been out on over a thousand successful missions, including about 350 to rescue lions in distress. She loves the forest and this is her dream job.
Like trophies from battle, she happily wears 15 deep scars from a nearfatal lion attack in the summer of 2012. And she is not alone: There are 40 other women van raksha sahayaks, equally driven and zealously watching over the Gir's precious bounty.
Chief Minister Narendra Modi's inspirational move in 2007 to employ women to guard the reserve forest may well have taken a cue from Gir's lionesses, who relentlessly hunt down the plentiful chinkara, nilgai or spotted deer to feed their pride, and turn fiercely protective when their cubs are threatened. Junagadh's women are proving equally enthusiastic in protecting the sanctuary.
At last count (April 2010 census), there were 411 lions in the 1,412 sq km of reserve forest-52 more than the last count in 2005. There's been more good news since Vadher and her colleagues joined. In November 2010, GPS monitoring of the big cats showed that as many as 50 adult lionesses were pregnant. Though surviving cubs from the births in early 2011 will only be counted in the next census in 2015, wildlife officials are confident "the pride will have grown significantly". The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) at Gir, Sandeep Kumar, acknowledges the impact of the women guards. "The numbers are rising because they (the women guards) have been successful in creating a new awareness amidst women and children in villages near the forest," he says. Assuming a more gently persuasive approach than their male counterparts who worked this beat before, Vadher and her colleagues, like Jayshree Patat, 26, and Shabnam Rinbaloch, 24, have worked hard to win cooperation not just from local villagers but also from maaldharis, the semi-nomadic tribal herdsmen who live in the sanctuary.
Rinbaloch says her job in the sanctuary has been a hugely empowering experience. Belonging to a tribal Muslim community that did not let its womenfolk seek work outside home, she became the trailblazer for other young women in her village of Jamanvada. In 2009, three others joined what they proudly refer to as the 'women's brigade', each bringing home Rs.5,200 a month to add significantly to their meagre family incomes. Thrilled with the overwhelming success of the initial recruitments, Aradhana Sahu, deputy conservator of forests at Junagadh, and DFO Kumar, are preparing to hire 100 more, to buffer preservation and protection initiatives in the Gir forest. Kumar says 1,200 young women have applied to join training as forest guards this year.
Before Modi had his brainwave of recruiting women guards in 2007, the Gujarat Forests Department was a decidedly male bastion with just two women, both Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers, amid its ranks. "It was fascinating to watch them at work," says wildlife enthusiast Madhavendra Singh, who came to see the lions up close in Gir. But quite like what Modi spoke about at the FICCI gathering, the 27-year-old from Bhopal says he was completely stumped by the way the wild beasts appeared almost tame in the presence of the women guards. Tourists and animal lovers are returning to Gir in a flood; many, like Pune's Revati Krishnan, 40, inspired by Amitabh Bachchan's captivating 2011 campaign for Gujarat Tourism Department. In just two years, tourist footfall has doubled to 302,428 in 2012-13.
But for Gir's 'women's brigade', it is more than about getting visitors a decent photo opportunity with the big cats. "Preserving the forest is serious business," says 25-year-old Manisha Vaghela, who singlehandedly tracked down and apprehended a gang of nine motorcycle-borne poachers trying to hunt chinkara antelopes in 2011.
Armed with double-barrelled shotguns and walkie-talkie radios, the vigilant women fan out into the bush, unmindful of the danger-venomous snakes, crocodiles lurking around watering holes, a hungry leopard or angry lionesses protecting their cubs. On an average day, each of the women's patrols negotiates over 25 km of forest, even during peak summer months when temperatures inside the sanctuary top 45ÂºC.
Vilas Antana, 24, graduated in Sanskrit from a college in Amreli and knew nothing of wild animals till the day she signed up to work as a guard in Gir. As with many of her colleagues, the job has diluted her marital prospects, with few young men of her community willing to marry a woman who wears khaki and wields a shotgun. She is not overly bothered, though, happy instead with the independence her job provides. "I can now tell you scientific names of all the birds and animals in this forest," she says.