Into the Lion’s Den in Gujarat

  • Gir Forest of Western India

    Gir Forest of Western India

  • Lion conservation in Gujarat is a success story, though the animals' tendency to roam beyond the borders of the Gir remains a threat to the species.

    Lion conservation in Gujarat is a success story, though the animals' tendency to roam beyond the borders of the Gir remains a threat to the species.

  • One of the Gir Forest National Park's female rangers out on patrol.

    One of the Gir Forest National Park's female rangers out on patrol.

  • A male Asiatic lion reclining in the sun.

    A male Asiatic lion reclining in the sun.

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Tigers may be India’s iconic big cat, but in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, it’s the Asiatic lion that reigns supreme, thanks in part to the country’s only female rangers.

By Kevin Pilley

Her workplace is a jungle. Her office is the scrub. She shares it with Indian rock pythons, marsh crocodiles, and spectacled cobras. Trupti Joshi is one of the “cat women” of the Gir. Her job is to protect and care for India’s last remaining lions, and she has the scars to prove it.

“Isn’t he a good-looking chap?” Trupti whispered as we crouched 10 meters away from a fully grown male, who lay panting after devouring his breakfast, a spotted chital deer. Nearby, under a flame tree, a sorority of lionesses picked
at the remains of the carcass. Vultures lurked in the treetops; a crested serpent eagle circled above. There is a strict hierarchy among the scavengers. Hyenas would not be far away.

Tigers are found across 17 Indian states but lions in only one, Gujarat, where the dry deciduous forest of the Gir is the last remaining habitat of Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion. Paler and slightly smaller than their African counterparts, these regal animals once roamed from Arabia to Persia and the mountains of Balochistan, but by modern times their range had been reduced to India, where trophy-seeking princes and nabobs hunted them to near extinction. Credit for their survival in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, goes to the last Nawab of Junagadh, who banned lion hunting in the early 20th century and set aside vast tracts of forest for their habitat.

I had checked in to the family-friendly Fern Gir Forest Resort—a 400-kilometer drive from Ahmedabad—the day before. The roster of activities here is voluminous, everything from kite-flying to jiggery making, beginner’s kabaddi lessons to a game of kho kho (tag), musical chairs, and an invitation to “Make Your Own Lion Mask.” But I was here to see lions and meet the ladies who work to protect them, so early on my first morning, I set out on a three-hour jeep safari through the heart of the Gir Forest National Park, a 258-square-kilometer wildlife sanctuary.

There were four of us on the dawn tour: a ruddy-faced American, a thick-kneed German couple, and me, a bandy-legged, bald-headed Brit. With Trupti as our guide, we bumped up and down through the scrub, dodging tree roots as best we could. At 7 a.m. the temperature was already 40 degrees. Soon after our encounter with the dozing male lion, we met up with another lady ranger, Rasila Vadher, a 28-year-old from Bhanduri village. Pulling up on her Hero Honda motorbike, she said with a flourish, “Welcome to the home of the jungle king!”

Rasila told us she had worked at the park since 2008, making her one of the first members of an all-women brigade of khaki-clad vanrakshak sahayak, or forest guards, some of whom also serve as “lion nurses.” Once she needed 15 stitches in her wrist after being attacked while trying to tag a leopard with a microchip. She has undertaken over 800 rescues. “The most memorable was trying to rescue a lioness who had been badly injured by a porcupine quill. We spent a whole day trying to get her into the cage,” she recalls.

There are now some 50 female rangers working in the Gir, with more soon to be recruited. They patrol 20 kilometers a day and earn 5,200 rupees (about US$78) a month. The idea of involving more village women in conservation work was the brainchild of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, back when he was Gujarat’s chief minister. He has described them as “gutsy girls.”

“Lion numbers in the park are rising because of these women guards,” Divisional Forest Officer Dr. Sandeep Kumar, who supervises their work, told me later. “The lions trust them more than men. They respond better. And the women have created new awareness about conservation in villages as well as among the Maldharis, Gujarat’s semi-nomadic herdsmen.”

Indeed, lion conservation in the Gir is a rare success story, at least according to the park’s 2015 lion census. The annual survey, which involved 2,200 people, 625 counting points (mainly at waterholes), and, for the first time, camera traps, drones, and GPS tracking, put the number of lions at 523—a 27 percent increase in five years. “The Gir has become a model for the study of human-wildlife management,” Kumar told me.

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