With the stealth of a cat, and the precision an Olympic shooter would be proud of, Raseela Vadher stalks the wounded animal through the thick undergrowth until she gains just enough sight of it to take aim. Slowly and careful not to make even the slightest noise, she brings the cross wires of her gun in line with the neck of the lioness before squeezing the trigger.
The tranquiliser dart plunges into the neck of the animal, which instantly limps off into the thick foliage. Raseela follows in hot pursuit and minutes later sees the majestic lioness slump, collapsing to the ground.
Relieved, Raseela (pictured right), one of 46 female forest guards in the Gir Forest in Gujarat, western India, fishes out a walkie-talkie, and radios her colleagues and a rescue team who quickly move in. The lioness is carefully hoisted into a net and rushed to the veterinary clinic on the outskirts of the forest where her near-fatal wounds – sustained in an encounter with another member of the pride – will be tended to before she is released into the wild again.
‘This particular lioness had been seriously injured and would have surely died if she was not given prompt medical attention,’ says Raseela, who is now a master in finding and rescuing injured cats. The 29-year-old and her team rescued more than 65 seriously injured animals last year alone in the inhospitable terrain of the Gir Forest. It is the last-known home to the endangered Asiatic lion and prior to its declaration as a protected zone in 1990, there were only 12 of them remaining there.
Today, thanks to the tireless conservation and preservation efforts of the forest guards, there are 523 lions prowling the forests there.
‘It’s not easy. It’s very, very tough in the physically demanding conditions with near daily dangerous encounters,’ she says. ‘But it’s worth it all to see the numbers go up.’
In 2007, Gujarat became the first Indian state to employ women in its forest department, as part of a plan to open employment opportunities for women, with a 33 per cent quota.
Dubbed the Lion Queens of India, today the 46-strong all-female team also manages over 100 other species, including leopards, monkeys, pythons, deer, hyenas and more than 1,000 crocodiles – conducting an average of two rescues a day.
Apart from wrestling angry creatures, the female guards also tackle poachers as well as care for orphaned cubs. It is the only female group involved in the direct wildlife management of big cats anywhere in the world.
Raseela says that initially nobody in the department supported her request to move into the front line. ‘They said, “She’s a woman, how can she work with lions, leopards and other wild animals”,’ recalls the mother of three.
‘I decided that being a woman, I needed to work like a man. And if I work like a man, no-one will doubt me. So when I’m working, they do not look at me as a woman. Out in the field I’ve proved myself their equal. And now they acknowledge, yes, a woman can do this work.’
CN Pandey, principal chief conservator of Gir Forest, Gujarat, says, ‘It has been a great success. The women are committed and well trained to take on poachers. They are also trained in wildlife management. So It’s a huge achievement that thanks to them the numbers of threatened wildlife are going up.’
Many of the women have had to overcome social stigma to join the band and none have come on this journey from privileged backgrounds.
They face a daily struggle – overcoming not only the dangers the role presents but also the subtle but prevalent difficulties of being a woman in a previously male-dominated world.
But Raseela, who has worked for more than four years on the team she now leads, after starting her department career at a desk job, says, ‘Now women also run the world. We don’t consider ourselves as women doing what men should do. We can show what we are worth.’
And show it they do, day in and day out. Take what happened when a leopard fell into a disused well in the heart of the forest.
Raseela peered over the edge of the deep hole and assessed the situation with a group of her colleagues. The only thing on her mind was the welfare of the terrified animal.
Bravely she suggested shutting herself in a makeshift metal cage and being lowered into the well to approach the leopard and get close enough to safely fire a tranquiliser dart. As the cage swung violently on its descent, the trapped leopard circled frantically, its teeth bared.
But with an air of calmness, Raseela took aim and fired the dart with perfect accuracy. With the animal safely sedated, she was able to attach a rope harness around it for fellow guards to winch it to safety and release it back into the forest.
On other occasions, leopards have been rescued after they were found trapped inside villagers’ homes as they scavenged for food.
Raseela’s quick thinking was also tested during a call to capture a python from a villager’s courtyard. After initial sightings, the reptile appeared to have slithered away, but sharp-eyed Raseela spotted movement near a wall and realised the snake was still around. She found it was a Russell’s Viper – responsible for the largest number of human deaths caused by snake bites in this part of the world.
Not troubled by its intimidating hiss, she and a male colleague hunted for the deadly snake in the crevices of a stone wall using sticks and hooks. Eventually after a lengthy search and struggle, the tracker managed to pin it down without hurting it. She then placed it in a sack, hopped on to her motorbike and drove deep into the forest where she released it.
Recently, the rescue centre received an urgent message for help to treat an injured lion cub stuck in a mango orchard.
‘I led a team in a truck through tiny villages and down dusty roads through the forest to reach the location of the sick creature,’ says Raseela.
Realising the cub was too young to be darted, she decided to try to capture it using a net, but the animal was too stressed and reacted angrily. It took over three hours of painstaking work to capture it and rush it to be assessed by a vet. A septic wound on its right ear was treated and a week later the animal was released into the wild.
On another rescue mission, Raseela had to decide on a strategy to help a lioness with an injured paw without taking her away from her three young cubs.
She waited patiently for hours to choose a time when the pride had just made its kill to lure the injured creature into a cage.
Once treated, Raseela left the injured lioness in an open cage in the forest so it could be with its cubs. When the big cat was healthy enough, Raseela released her into the long grass – and watched in delight as the cubs followed close behind. ‘I feel happy to be helping not just the people but the creatures of the wild, too,’ she says
There have been occasions when the team has had to face poachers as well.
Guard Manisha Khora recently caught 11 lion poachers. After a long chase on her motorbike that resembled a scene from a Bollywood film, she arrested all of them. ‘It was a dangerous mission but I was not afraid. I would not allow anyone to mess with the forest and the lives there,’ she says.
While some poachers are hunting wildlife, others have their sights set on the forest’s valuable teak wood.
Darshana Kagada frequently finds herself on night patrol riding her motorbike through the dark wilderness armed with just a strong torch and walkie-talkie tracking them down. ‘They can be dangerous and we find such people quite often in the forest,’ says the mother of three. ‘But we are trained in tackling them.’
This year a further 43 women have been recruited to the team and are currently going through intensive training.