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Asiatic lion male in the nature habitat in Gir National Park, Gujrat, India

The cat women of Gir

Meet the women who are protecting Gujarat's lions

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13 October 2016 by Julia Hudson

This article originally appeared in Traveller magazine, authored by staff writer Kevin Pilley.

Her workplace is a jungle. Her office is the scrub. She shares it with Indian rock pythons, marsh crocodiles and spectacle cobras.

Tripti is one of the Cat Women of Gujarat. Her job is to protect and nurse India’s pride. She has the scars to prove it.

Tigers are found across 17 Indian states, but lions in only one. The dry deciduous forest of the Gir in Gujarat, western India, is the world’s last remaining home of the Asiatic or Persian lion. It is the only place where you can see Leo panticara in the wild.

‘Isn’t he a good-looking chap?’ Tripti whispered, as we sat ten metres away from a fully-grown male, panting after its dusk breakfast.

The moon was waning and the temperature was already 40C.

Nearby, under a flame tree, a sorority of lionesses picked at the carcass of their morning kill, a spotted chital deer. Vultures waited in the tree tops. A crested serpent eagle circled above. There is a strict hierarchy among the scavengers. Jackals and hyenas would not be far away.

‘Welcome to the home of the jungle king!’ smiled 28-year-old Rasila Vadher from Junagadh district’s Bhanduri village. She has worked alongside Tripti as a ranger at the Gir National Park and Sanctuary since 2008, and was one of the first ‘lady rangers’ or behens. There are now 400 lady rangers and ‘lion nurses’, with a hundred more soon to be recruited. They were part of the team that rounded up lions held responsible for recent attacks in which three local people were killed.

Both Tripti and Rasila have rescued lions and leopards from village wells. Rashila needed 15 stitches on her wrist after being attacked while trying to tag a leopard with a micro-chip. She has undertaken over 800 rescues. ‘The most memorable was trying to rescue a lioness badly injured by a porcupine quill,’ she said. ‘We spent a whole day trying to get her into the cage.’

I met them on a dawn safari at the park, 400 kms’ drive from Ahmedabad. I had opted for this three-hour, £120 safari by jeep, in place of the unique, on-site attractions at my family-friendly Fern Resort in Sasan Gir – kite flying (seasonal), jiggery making, beginners’ kabaddi, lemon- and egg-racing, kho kho (tag), musical chairs and ‘make your own lion pug mask’. Instead I was hoping to see a very rare gene pool.

There were four of us on the dawn tour. A fat-tailed, rufous-faced American, a thick-kneed German couple, and bandy-legged, bald-headed me. The American was a keen photographer who couldn’t close his aperture. He went on and on about preventing motion blur and how he was on evaluative meter mode in JPG format and trusting to horizontal stabilisation. He thrust his outsize lenses past my nose. He was eager, he said, to add to his on-field wildlife portfolio.

He asked me what I was using. I said ‘O2 energy drink.’ To reduce camera shakes, I had invested in a tourist alcohol licence. Gujarat is India’s one dry state.

We bumped up and down through the scrub. Every tree root tested the coccyx. And met up with more lady rangers.

Rashila needed 15 stitches on her wrist after she was attacked while trying to tag a leopard with a micro-chip. She has undertaken over 800 rescues. ‘The most memorable was trying to rescue a lioness badly injured by a porcupine quill. We spent a whole day trying to get her into the cage.’

Begun in 1962, the Gir Lion Project is a conservation success story. The first lion count was undertaken in 1880 by a Colonel Watson. He recorded 12 lions. The first Forest Service tally was in 1963 and found 285. In 2010, 411 lions or vanrajs (kings of the forest) were recorded. In 2015, the numbers had risen to 523, a 27% increase in five years.

‘Gir forest management has become a model for the study of human-wildlife management,’ said Divisional Forest Officer Dr Sandeep Kumar, who oversaw the 2015 count. It involved 2,200 people, 30 zones, 625 counting points (mainly waterholes) and 22,000 square kms of the Saurashtra region. For the first time camera traps, drones and e-surveillance was used in the form of GPS (global positioning system). The whole operation took four days.

‘The numbers are rising because the women guards have been successful in creating new awareness amidst women and children in villages, as well as amidst the local semi-nomadic local tribespeople, the Maldharis,’ Dr Kumar explained as we crossed the Hiran river and followed the rangers on their Hondo Hero motorbikes. ‘The lions trust them more than men! They respond better. Reduction in the animal’s fear complex is so important.’

Once lions were widespread from Greece through the Middle East to eastern India. In Europe they died out 2,000 years ago. And were hunted near to extinction in India by princes, maharajahs and British nabobs on shikars (hunting safaris) – until hunting was banned by the Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khanji 11 in the nineteenth century. The last reported sighting of a lion in Delhi was in 1834.

The lion has always had iconic status in India. Buddha’s first sermon was called simhanada (the lion’s roar) and he was known as Sakyasimha – the lion of the Sakya tribe. In Hindu mythology, the lion was the symbol of royalty and the king and his throne (the singhasan or lion’s seat) were inseparable. In northern India, Singh, meaning lion, has been a common middle or surname among Hindus as well as Sikhs since the seventh century. India’s national emblem, adopted in 1950, comes from the emperor Ashoka’s Lion Pillar of the third century BC.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, placed a lion pillar on the gates of his official residence in New Delhi. It replaced the Victorian symbols left by the British. In 2007 Modri, who was born in Gujarat, started a programme to involve more female villagers in conservation work. He has described the Cat Women of Gir as ‘gutsy girls’.

‘Our job is a serious and important one,’ says 27-year-old Manisha Vaghela, who once caught a gang of poachers hunting chinkara (gazelle). She and her colleagues are involved in rescue operations and have been trained to track injured animals.

Ranger Shabna says her job has been an empowering experience. She comes from the closed Muslim community of Jamanvada and it has changed her life: ‘I am very proud to be a forest ranger. To serve the Gujarat Forestry Department, to be a vanrackshak sahayak – a servant of the sanctuary.’

Vilas is a graduate who studied Sanskrit. ‘Before I knew nothing about the place where I lived and the animals I shared my life with. Now I can tell you the scientific names of wildlife. And the threats they are under.’

The behens work under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act. There are fines for illegal grazing and teak-wood cutting as well as fires and other depredations of the environment. Ranger Kiran explained as we stopped for lunch: ‘We are preserving our heritage. The lion is the symbol of Indian sovereignty. The four-headed lion is on our bank notes. The Persian lions are the last remaining gene pool of the lions of Daniel, Androcles and the Roman gladiators.’

‘We are very lucky.You see some amazing sights,’ said her colleague Sonal as the jeeps moved on. ‘Like lions chasing a pangolin and leopards resting on termite mounds. The Gir has the largest population of leopards in India.’ A deer raced past. She smiled. ‘Their menu!’

The Asiatic lion is paler and slightly smaller than its African counterpart. It has less prominent ears, bushier elbow tufts and a fuller tail tassle. It has a characteristic skin fold down its stomach. Males can weigh up to 420 pounds. Lionesses, which do the hunting and can have six litters, weigh less at 190 pounds.

Lions are great wanderers and this is raising challenges. A male requires 50 square kms as his territory. Drought and dry riverbeds (caused by illegal mining of sandstone and limestone) as well as general habitat shrinkage have meant that lions are moving out of the Gir. Satellite colonies have been established in coastal areas, 60 kilometres away. Forty per cent of the lion population is now thought to live outside the forest.

For many people, translocation of the species is urgently needed: one outbreak of distemper could kill off the entire breed. But roaming lions are being electrocuted, drowned in parapet-less wells or hit by cars and trains. Fifteen people have been reported killed and 114 wounded in lion attacks in the last two years: 260 lions have been killed. And lions need to eat.

Kamlesh Adhiya is President and Founder of the Asiatic Lion Protection Society. He says: ‘Lions are great nomads. Great wanderers. Migration of lions has been recorded at Mithiyala and coastal forests up to Porbandar.

‘In the 1960s, 75 per cent of the lion’s diet was domestic livestock. By relocating and compensating Maldhari cow-men out of the forest, and by increasing the ungulate population, the share of domestic cattle in the menu of the lion has been reduced. The lions at Gir have changed their choice from domestic cattle to the wild ungulates like chital, wild boar, sambar and langur.’

In 2005, Asiatic lions were removed for the critically endangered species list. A breeding centre has been established at Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh, Gujarat. ‘It is government and local people working together,’ concluded Dr Kumar as our Indian lion safari came to an end. ‘The lady rangers are frontline defenders of our wildlife. They are our foot soldiers. We have carried out hundreds of rescue and release operations over the years, as well as creating fire-towers, fire lines, dam work and other vital habitat management.’

A lion yawned and stretched in front of us. ‘They are remarkably resilient animals. They have shown that given half a chance they can survive. And thrive.’

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