Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Meet the lion queens of Gir Wildlife Park

By Pamela Raghunath

Vadher is the first woman leader of Gir’s Lion Protection Team

Mumbai: Rasila Vadher, 28, a forester and leader of the rescue division of Gujarat’s Gir Lion Protection Team doesn’t hesitate to face daring situations, perhaps that’s why she has been described as the ‘lion queen’ of India.
Life in the forest guards’ residential quarters of Sasan Gir, tucked away in the dry deciduous forests of Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, is a demanding one; you are on call 24/7. And when summoned, you may have but 10-15 minutes to dash off on a mission to track and rescue a lion, or lioness, or lion cubs, or any other wildlife. “We have to quickly decide on the rescue mode — for instance, if a lion has fallen into a dry well, we would have to first tranquillise the animal before bringing it out to safety,” Vadher told Gulf News.
She is on a visit to Mumbai where she and her team, comprising the experienced forest guard M.A. Rayjada and forester Madhu Karengia, also known as the ‘lion queen’, received the Wildlife Service Award from Sanctuary Asia magazine on December 18 at the National Centre for Performing Arts.
The awards, instituted in 2000, recognise the best-in-the-field of wildlife conservation in India and highlight the immense contribution of individuals working to defend the country’s wilderness.
Never shrinking from danger, Vadher, as team leader, is at the forefront of most rescue missions. Once, she even climbed into a well to rescue a leopard. Perhaps her most unforgettable operation was when a lion was badly injured by a porcupine, she said.
“The lion looked weak and we thought it would be easy to tranquillise it, but our three attempts failed. And in the middle of this task, a lioness and her cubs came strolling nearby and my team members frantically tried to shoo them away by hitting the ground with their sticks. One stick broke, hit my head and I fainted, but recovered quickly.
“It was 6.30pm and getting dark, but I was determined to finish our job and by 11pm the animal finally walked into the cage where a ‘kill’ awaited. We were able to tranquillise it at 5.30am.”
Leading lady
Vadher, the first woman in Gujarat to head its wildlife rescue division, joined the forest department in 2007 after undergoing various physical fitness tests after which she was selected along with 48 other women who went on to become forest guards, foresters and so on.
“Our former chief minister and now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had initiated the induction of more women into the forest force since we found women were also among the poachers caught and it made sense to have female forest guards to handle them,” she said.
When she headed the rescue division in 2008, there were 359 lions; the population has grown to 523. The Gir sanctuary is also home to more than 500 leopards.
Vadher and her rescue team have undertaken over 800 rescue operations, and Karengia, who is in charge of protection, conservation and livelihood management, has cleared over 36 hectares of encroachment into the forest, made arrests on offences of illegal entry and unauthorised grazing. In recognition of Indian women forest guards, Discovery Channel screened a four-part series programme called The Lion Queens of India in September and October.
Announcing the awards at a press conference last Thursday, Bittu Sahgal, Founder and Editor, Sanctuary Asia, said, “These foresters and forest guards are the gatekeepers of one of India’s most successful conservation stories — the thriving well-being of the planet’s last population of Asiatic lions.”
Of various individuals who have been honoured by Sanctuary, Sahgal said: “These guardians of tomorrow are all that stand between humanity and ecological suicide. From diverse geographies and cultures, with diverse skill sets and interests, these heroes represent the conscience of a nation that is now suffering the consequences of decades of myopic development.”
The awards are supported by DSP BlackRock, an investment company, Deutsche Bank, India, and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.

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