Wildlife protection has often been seen as the domain of men. This is changing; there are many noted women in the field of wildlife conservation.
India is the home to the Asiatic lion. The Gir National Park in Gujarat is the natural habitat of these rare animals. The population of the lions had reduced drastically due to unchecked hunting during the colonial era. In 1965, the park was declared a wildlife sanctuary and ten years later, it was accorded the status of a national park. The conservation efforts have borne fruit since then and the number of lions has increased to 253 (according to the census conducted in 2015). At the forefront of this conversation effort is Gir’s women forest guards and its animal rescue team.
The recruitment of women as wildlife rescuers began in 2007 when the state of Gujarat became the first state in India to employ women in its forest department by creating a 33% quota. Every year, more and more women undergo an intensive training for joining the wildlife department of Gujarat, which is directly involved in the manageent of big cats. The Lion Queens (as these women are known) have rescued over 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 work also includes arresting poachers, placating irate villagers, retrieving wayward pythons, and tranquilizing rogue monkeys.
None of the women have come from privileged backgrounds; some have had 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 that are inherent in interacting with extremely dangerous wild animals.
The all-women team rescues as many as 600 animals annually. But their favourite part of the job is tending to vulnerable little cubs and nurturing other baby animals till they are old enough to survive on their own. One of the first to be recruited was Raseela Wadher who now heads the entire wildlife rescue team. She has participated in over 200 lion rescues. In an interview to The Times of India, she said, “Once I had gone with my team to rescue an injured lion. As soon as we fired the tranquilizer shot, it almost attacked us. But we kept our cool and slowly walked back to our vehicles. The lion too slowly retreated into the forest.”
The involvement of women in conservation is not new. The famous Chipko movement was initiated by women in 1973 when they saved 300 trees from being hacked down. The men of the village were away when loggers arrived. Village women took the initiative to save the trees.
Other women who have made a name in environmental conservation include J.Vijaya who travelled to places such as Bhagalpur, Bihar, in order to save turtles. In 1981, she was only 22 years old when she began mapping areas where hunters had wiped out turtles. Her graphic black and white photographs shook readers of India Today magazine as well as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s conscience.
The women of Maharashtra’s Special Tiger Protection Force have been instrumental in protecting the state’s vulnerable tiger forests. They patrol miles at a stretch in search of poachers and snares. Committed and fearsome, they are the embodiment of the powerful feminine force.