For a group of women forest guards working in India’s Gir sanctuary, the only home to Asiatic lions, protecting and rescuing big cats is all in a day’s work. The BBC’s Geeta Pandey travels to Gir forest to meet some of them.
Rasila Vadher was among the first batch of women guards recruited by the forest department in the western state of Gujarat in 2007.
The women’s unit was set up that year, when then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi – now India’s prime minister – ordered a 33% quota for women in Gir.
At the time, “I knew nothing about the forest department, animals or Gir”, she tells me as we sit chatting in her office in the rescue centre, interrupted at regular intervals by growling leopards and roaring lions.
“My father had died early and my mother worked on other people’s farms to send me and my younger brother to school. People in my community are very conservative so they told my mother, ‘why educate the girl, she will get married and cook for her husband’s family’. But my mother agreed to educate me because I wanted to study,” she said.
In 2007, Vadher heard that the forest department was hiring guards, so she took her brother to the recruitment centre.
“I wanted him to get a job in the forest department. He was asked to take a physical fitness test, where he had to run and participate in a high-jump and long-jump competition. But he chickened out, so I decided to try my luck. And I made it through,” she says.
Initially she was assigned office work, “but that was boring, so I thought let’s try something new”.
When Vadher began working as a guard in the field, protecting and rescuing wild animals, her male colleagues weren’t too enthused about having a woman in their midst.
“Will we have to take care of the animals, or this woman?” they asked.
“I said let me try and we’ll see how it goes,” she says, adding that she “loves a good challenge”.
Today, Vadher has come a long way from those days – she’s a highly respected member of the rescue team and has been involved in nearly 900 rescues – 200 of them involving lions and 425 involving leopards.
Recently, along with some of the other women guards, Vadher has played a starring role in a four-part Discovery Channel series called The Lion Queens of India.
“My most memorable rescue was on 18 March 2012,” she tells me.
“A leopard had fallen into a well, chasing a civet cat. The well had been newly-dug, it was dry and about 60-foot deep. We tried to tranquilise it, but we kept missing it because it was too far away. So I said I would go down in a cage and once the leopard is in range I would shoot the dart.
“I was lowered into the well in a small metal cage with a dart gun. The leopard was angry and growling. I had no experience and I was really afraid. But I fired the dart and hit the target. Once the animal was tranquilised, I captured it in a rope cage and it was hauled up,” she says.
Vadher, who married last year, says she had warned her husband before they married. “I told him this is my work. And it’s 24×7. I may be called in even at 3am. And I’ll be working with men. He agreed. He understands and has no problems.”
Kagada comes from a family of eight sisters, and has no brothers.
“I belong to the Rajput caste which is very conservative. Girls and women in our families are treated as inferior beings. We are meant to get married, look after our families, cook and clean, and not have a career,” she says.
Her father, she says, was no different in his beliefs.
“I had just finished senior school in 2011 when I heard that the forest department was recruiting. I went to my sister’s house and persuaded her husband to take me for the exam.
“For 600 posts, there were 600,000 applicants,” she says, adding that the competition was “very tough”.
“First I had to clear the physical fitness test. Then I was taken on a 10km walk through the forest where I had to identify flora and fauna. That was followed by a written test and then an oral examination.”
She told her father only after she got the job. “Today, he’s very proud of me,” she says.
On a cool October morning, 24-year-old Kagada escorts me into the lush green Gir forest.
We are in an open jeep and just a few minutes into our journey, we stop as we come across three guards patrolling the forest on foot.
As Kagada chats with them, I turn to my left, and there, less than three metres from us are three lionesses lounging around with five cubs. The guards only have wooden sticks, but they seem unconcerned.
“Lions are royal animals. They don’t care about you and me,” explains Kagada. “They will attack humans only if we intrude into their space, or if they feel you are threatening their cubs or you get too close to them when they are mating.”
As the lionesses settle down to take a nap, we continue to hang around, chatting and looking at them. The only time one of the lionesses turns her head to look in our direction is when one of the guards starts talking a bit loudly on his walkie-talkie.
Kagada is among 48 women guards who are involved in the protection and rescue of lions and leopards in Gir.
She also trains forest guards and officials and teaches nature education courses to school children.
“I love my job, lots of children, especially girls, tell me they want to be like me,” Kagada says.
“These women guards are an inspiration to women all over the country,” says Sandeep Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forests in Gir.
“Even Prime Minister Modi has said that people don’t come to Gir to see lions, they come to see these women guards,” he adds.
For as long as she can remember, Ratadiya always wanted to be a forest guard.
“I was born in Gir, my grandfather and my father both worked as forest guards,” she says.
Unlike Vadher and Kagada who had never seen a lion until they became forest guards, Ratadiya had her first encounter with the big cats when she was just four years old.
“My father used to take me to the forest with him all the time. One day I saw him standing close to a lion and a lioness. I was very afraid, I thought they would attack him, I started to cry,” she says with a laugh.
But she continued to accompany her father into the jungle and, she says, gradually the fear faded.
“when I told my parents that I wanted to work in the forest, my mother thought I was too frail and would not qualify. She was thrilled when I was selected. But I always wanted to wear the khaki uniform and carry a walkie-talkie like my dad.”
In the six years that she has worked as a forest guard, Ratadiya has been involved in many rescue operations and also takes care of the animals at the rescue centre.
On the days there is no rescue, there is plenty for her to do, taking care of injured, sick and abandoned animals.
Ratadiya had been married for just a couple of months when she got the forest department job.
Today, she often takes her two-year-old daughter to work. “She pesters me to bring her here every day. She loves looking at lions and other animals.”
I ask her if her daughter will also grow up to be a forest guard.
“No,” she says, adding, “I don’t mind if she joins the department, but I want her to study and be a senior official.”
First published on BBC News