One balmy morning in March 2013, residents of Jalandhar village in Junagadh, Gujarat, woke up to a commotion around an under-construction well. In the night, a leopard had fallen into the well.
The village we are talking about lies on the periphery of the Gir National Park, recognized as the last abode of the Asiatic Lion. People living here are used to spotting big cats in their backyards. In this case, like many others, the crowd around the well kept increasing and everyone was talking about the fate of the leopard.
The wildlife rescue team from the forest department was quick to respond, but then there was the question of who would go down the narrow shaft of the well. Rasila P. Vadher, 29, the only woman in the rescue and rehabilitation team of the forest department in Gir, volunteered.
“The leopard had fallen to a depth of about 40-50 feet. There was very little light inside and space to manoeuvre for tranquilising the animal,” says Vadher.
A parrot cage, a specially designed metal cage in the shape of a traditional bird cage used by the forest department for rescue operations, was brought in for the job. These types of cages are built to accommodate a human being and Vadher snugly fitted into it; slowly and steadily she was lowered into the dark pit. The leopard was by now in a frenzy.
When Vadher was just 10 feet away from the leopard, she fired her dart gun and tranquilised the big cat. After making sure the tranquiliser had taken effect, she got out of the metal cage and secured the animal, which was pulled out. Vadher came the same way she went in. The leopard was then taken back to the national park and released in the wild.
Since her enrolment in the forest department in 2008, Vadher has taken part in over 800 rescues in and around Gir. Rescues from wells, pits, people’s homes, farms and other places—the number includes over 400 leopards, 200 lions, crocodiles, pythons and and birds. But she particularly remembers this particular rescue mission.
Ask Vadher how it feels like to encounter a lion on foot and she calmly replies, “The lion is like a family member, it never attacks; if it doesn’t want you to come closer it will give a warning for you to go away. We understand the mood of the animal by the twitch of the ear or tail. ”
Vadher’s knowledge of different species and her skills in handling individual animals in tricky situations have helped in mitigating human-wildlife conflict in villages around Sasan Gir.
Each rescue mission is a new challenger. Whenever duty calls, Vadher also joins anti-poaching patrols nabbing poachers. She also participates in awareness programmes and nature camps to sensitise villagers living along the periphery of the Gir National Park.
Vadher’s exemplary courage and dedication has been lauded by not only the forest department and locals but also Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Modi took the initiative to appoint women staff as Van Raksha Sahayaks (forest guards) in 2007, and praised their exemplary role in wildlife conservation.
Vadher grew up in Bhanduri village, Junagadh. After her father’s death, her mother worked as a daily labourer to make ends meet. In spite of the hardships, she saw to it that her two children went to school. Vadher went on to graduate with a first class bachelor’s degree in Hindi, from Saurashtra University. Today she is the only earning member in her family and takes care of her mother and younger brother.
In 2007, Vadher got an opportunity to join the State Reserve Police Force but decided to stick to her job as a forest guard. “Everything in the forest interests me—from the scorpion, trees and birds to the big cats.”
Apart from her duty as a rescue forester, Vadher loves sports and photography. “I love to play chess; I once played at the national level in Goa and came fourth in the competition. I look forward to our department’s annual sports day on 26 January. This year, I participated in long jump, 100-200 metre run, badminton and chess,” says Vadher.
Brij Bihari Sharma, Dev Singh, Rakesh Kumar and Rasila Vadher have been recognized through Hem Chand Mahindra Wildlife Foundation and Saevus Wildlife Warriors Awards, 2014.
This year, seven people will be felicitated with the Wildlife Warrior Awards. They are:
1. Biraj Barman, forester – Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, Assam
2. Babu Rathod, forest guard – Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka
3. Pan Singh Gaunia, watcher – Nandhour Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand
4. Mangal Kachhap, ranger – Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, Jharkhand
5. Kauleshar Bhagat, forest guard – Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, Jharkhand
6. Joint award to: Atulkumar Bhanusankar Dave – (range forest officer) & Isha Hasan Sumra (watchman) of Kutch Bustard Sanctuary, Gujarat.
This is the second blog in a two-part series profiling two of the winners of Wildlife Warriors 2014 awards, this year’s edition of which will be presented on Monday at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai. The awards have been instituted to honour the foot soldiers of India’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.