The sun was setting peacefully a few months ago. Anita Raval, in her twenties, was returning home after a hard day's work and was on the periphery of the forest.
What happened then benumbed her and literally stopped dead in her tracks. It was just a hand-shaking distance and a leopard majestically walked past her. She regained her guts and immediately alerted her colleagues and managed to drive back the beast into the forest with the help of villagers.
Young Rasilaben Wadher also had a hair-raising experience which will send shivers down the spine of most people. But she is made of a sterner stuff and handled the crisis with elan. “Once I had gone with my team to rescue an injured lion. It almost
attacked us. We kept our cool and slowly returned to our vehicle. The lion slowly retreated into the forest,” she recalled.
Most women, working as forest guards in the last few years, have many such experiences to share. Some bone-chilling stories that would make the weak look for a better place to work. But these women are made of sterner stuff and no wonder, they continue to guard the forests, facing all odds.
It is no surprise that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing an elite crowd of women in New Delhi, cited several examples of fair sex taking risks to excel in society. When he spoke of women achievers, who rose from a modest background and carved a niche for themselves, he did not forget to make a mention about the tribal women protecting the forests of Sasan Gir that attracts thousands of tourists for a glimpse of the Asiatic Lions.
Their mention could be for obvious reasons—they have been doing a decent job in the last few years. Their recruitment in 2007 made one more male bastion crumble in the state of Gujarat. In 2007, the Department, for the first time, announced that it would recruit women as forest guards, considered to be a challenging and dangerous job by many.
On selection, the women were given practical as well as theoretical training at the Gujarat Forest Rangers College in Rajpipla. “We even trained them in use of arms and on legal matters,” recalled Sandeep Kumar of Gir West Division, Junagadh. Most of these women belong to Junagadh and have volunteered for the first all-woman patrol in Gir Wildlife Sanctuary—Van Raksha Sahayak.
One such Sahayak, Trupti comes from the small village of Ambalgadh in Talal taluk of Junagadh district. As a Van Raksha Sahayak, her job involves intense field work in the wild. All recruits conduct night patrolling and rescue missions apart from
other regular tasks.
The recruits went through a gruelling test involving an 800-metre run, high jump, long jump and a 15-km observation walk through the jungle. Those selected were imparted training for 10 days. “I was born and brought up in the Gir area. My parents taught me to love and respect wildlife. I am happy to serve here and don’t need another job,” Trupti added.
The recruits come from Maliya, Una, Kodinar and Junagadh taluks. Women beat guards have been appointed at other sanctuaries in Gujarat too, but Gir is a special case since it is the only abode of the Asiatic lion. Rasilaben Wadher said, “I have taken up the duties of a forester in the Sasan Gir sanctuary division and am loving it,” she added.
It is love of the wild that unites all these women. Keyuri Khambda, who joined the forest department in Gujarat recently, opted for the job because of her love for forest and concern for the wild. “I work with the assistant conservator of forests on patrolling and raids,” she said.
The women hold different profiles. Those on the Mobile Squad patrol the entire sanctuary area, including Gir east, west , Sasan and Junagadh district. The Rescue Squad is responsible for the rescue of wild animals in distress. The Wireless Squad coordinates between all the squads. The patrol squad also manages the tourist circuit at Sinh Sadan in Sasan.
Their work includes preventing smugglers from cutting trees, preventing forest fire and chasing away leopards. Anita Raval, one such beat guard, manning the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada’s Nandod taluk, admits that it is not a fixed time job like 10 am to 5 pm work. “Many a time when fire breaks out in the forest, I have to rush even at midnight,’’ said Raval.
She admitted that she has to venture out alone in the forests, some times just armed with a stick and not only fight animals but battle superstitions of the tribals. Raval is one of the eight beat guards of the total 129 beat guards in Narmada district. “Cutting forest wood is not allowed, though we allow villagers to collect dead wood,’’ says Raval.
She said when they find somebody cutting trees, they do inform the range officer. “We also prevent villagers from lighting a fire in the forest which most of the time they do as a part of a ritual among the tribals,’’ said Raval.
Forest officials in the area added that it was a difficult task indeed to convince tribals not to follow such rituals and foresters were attacked as well for preventing them from practising these rituals. So, many a time under such a situation a team of eight or nine guards go to the scene instead of one beat guard. This is more of a precautionary measure. They also raise nursery in front of their quarters and later transplant them in forest.
The beat guards have also played a vital role in rescuing the animals straying from forests to human habitat. It has been their job to shift these animals to the forest without endangering the life of the animal and humans. The beat guards admit that theirs was indeed a challenging job, but most of them have opted for it as a choice. So, they enjoy the task despite the risks involved.