The forest guard team that protects 523 Asiatic lions
A little after sunrise, 25-year-old Kiran Pathija starts her patrol in Gir forest, the last home of 523 Asiatic lions. As shafts of diffused light poke through the dense canopy of trees, Pathija cruises through the jungle on her motorbike looking for new pugmarks and animal carcasses - signs that a big cat is in the vicinity. On average she spots a lion about twice a week, alerting the rescue team only if the animal is injured. Otherwise, she simply notes her observations - births, pregnancies, fresh kills - before continuing to prowl.
A forest guard in Gir's Sasan division for the last five years, Pathija is married to a forester and has a one-and-half-year-old son. "I worked through most of my pregnancy," she says. "I was still riding my motorbike in my third trimester." After exhausting her 4.5 months of maternity leave, Pathija left her newborn with her mom in the guards' quarters while she patrolled the jungle - heading back every few hours to breastfeed.
In 2007, PM Narendra Modi, then CM of Gujarat, carved out a 33% quota for women in Gir - creating the only female forest guards' team in India. The team is now the subject of a four-part series on Discovery channel called Lion Queens of India. Rasila Vadher, who hails from a small village in Gujarat's Junagadh district, will star in the series that premieres on September 28. She was part of the first batch of 43 recruits - 12 of whom were stationed in Gir. Since gangs of women from neighbouring villages regularly wander into the forest to cut prized teak trees, women guards are an asset during arrests, she explains. They help the wildlife department deflect allegations of harassment. Lion poaching, however, is rare as the jungle has many check posts and roving patrols.
The 31-year-old Vadher estimates that she's been part of 800 rescues to date - 200 involving lions. Her very first experience left her unconscious when a lion began chasing a guard and other members of the rescue team began throwing sticks to keep the big cat at bay. "They didn't see me standing in the dark, holding a rope, so one of the sticks hit me on the head and I fainted," she recalls. But Vadher persisted until the wounded lion was captured and taken to the centre for treatment.
Darshana Kagda, a 24-year-old forester, recalls a rescue last year spanning almost 15 days when a lioness killed a farm labourer near Rajula town and injured another. Labelled a man-eater, locals were baying for her blood but the big cat had to be released because her two cubs were free and needed their mom. The team then tracked the lioness and her cubs from village to village - finally ensnaring all three in a camouflaged cage. By this time, an analysis of the big cat's spoor showed that the lioness hadn't eaten the farm labourer but had only defended herself and her cubs after being teased. "Why should she be sent to live in a zoo, if she acted in self-defence?" asks Kagda. "After getting the report, we set her free."
One of eight sisters, Kagda supports her family on her forester salary. Initially, her father wasn't a fan of her profession but he has slowly come around. For the first five years, both foresters and forest guards make only Rs 7,800 per month. After five years, foresters make Rs 22,000, while forest guards earn Rs 16,000.
Currently, there are seven women in Gir's Sasan division and many more stationed in other parts of the forest. Paucity of leave - just 12 days annually for the first five years- takes a toll on their family lives but the women have learned to be upfront about their work commitments. "I told my husband before getting married that I would be working late hours in the jungle with men," recalls Vadher. "I said, 'If you have a problem with this, we won't get married.'"
One of the many upsides, however, is getting to nurture orphaned lion and leopard cubs. In fact, Vadher has had lion cubs follow her around like puppies and come running when she calls. "My favourite was a lion cub found by the rescue team when she was less than a month old," says Vadher. "I named her Ragini."