By Shambhavi Saxena:
In 1971, Helen Reddy sang “I am woman, hear me roar”. Today the Lion Queens of Gir National Park are really bringing that lyric to life. It all started when a group of women, employed by the Forest Department of Gujrat in 2007, ditched their paper-pushing duties for something more hands-on. A unique sisterhood was forged in the forests of Gir, held together by their deep sense of commitment to the environment, and to their own independence and strength.
At the helm of this team is 31-year old Raseela Vadher. A native of Bandhuri village, Junagadh, she had her start in the communications division of the Forest Department, but quickly realised that her interests lay outside the four walls of government offices. Vadher wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. 27-year old Vilas Antana has happily traded in the prospect of being a bride for khakis, a double-barrelled tranquiliser gun and a vast knowledge of the forest, under her protection.
With 43 new recruits to the team this year, and a four-episode run on Discovery Channel last September, the Lion Queens’ journey has been inspiring, to say the least. But the conditions are no walk in the park.
Their patrol stretches across 25 km of forest, often in soaring temperatures, and close encounters with the animals are inevitable. No one knows this better than Vadher, who has the scars from a 2012 lion attack to prove it. In spite of this, her love for the forest and its animals is unwavering.
“The lion is like a family member,” says Vadher, whose long years in the forests have given her keen insights that seem almost magical to city-slickers. “We understand the mood of the animal by the twitch of the ear or tail.” Where one might see a 160-kilo carnivore, Raseela and her team see complex social units, behavioural patterns, and numerous indicators of ecological health.
It’s a nerve-wracking job, conserving a forest! It involves neutralising some of the planet’s deadliest creatures; making medical interventions; rescuing endangered and dangerous animals from pits, ditches and deep wells; halting illegal wood cutting; and arresting poachers. There’s also a lot to be done in the crèche for abandoned baby animals. But lest those cute cub faces deceive us, the Lion Queens – who run a real tight ship in Gir – have a truly high-octane occupation.
Vadher, who is responsible for the rescue operations, does not mess around. Not only does she give her all to the forest, she believes, “Girls can do anything. We are not meant to sit at home and make rotis.”
Fierce and self-assured, the Lion Queens have been packing a mean punch to the social demands levied against women. These wildlife heroes, many of them in their twenties, have “had to overcome opposition from their families to work as foresters“. Because of the ‘glorious’ gender-binary we hold so dear, it is often incorrectly assumed that women cannot do work that is physically demanding of them. The utter lack of opportunity when it comes to anything from owning assets to physical training, has disadvantaged women so much so that their non-involvement in nearly all public aspects of life, are normalised. The Lion Queens, who have a six-year headstart over another extremely similar team from South Africa – the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit – are effectively smashing this myth of women being incompetent and weak.
In fact, the growing numbers of Asiatic lions in Gir, which is now over 500, could not have been possible without the hard work of this very special team. Their efforts in wildlife conservation may on the surface seem unrelated to gender inequalities in India, but they’re essentially shining a light on the accomplishments we are told women are incapable of. And in a country where the sex ratio is embarrassing, in which sexual violence is used to discipline women, and in which a woman’s place is the kitchen, it’s certainly important to see women like Vadher excelling in their field.
A lion’s call travels eight kilometres in any direction. The example being set by amazing foresters like Raseela Vadher must travel coast to coast, mountain peak to sand dune, and all the way back.
For she is woman, hear her roar.