Green Minute News:
For centuries, a unique relationship has existed between Warlis (tribal community) and Waghoba (the Big Cat deity) and a recent study highlights the relevance of this co-existence in the conservation of leopards in Maharashtra, India.
Despite sharing space and resources, both humans and leopards have survived in a complex, robust and long-standing relationship in this state.
An exploratory study on their relationship was conducted by researchers from Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS), NINA, Norway, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Norway and supported by Wildlife Conservation Trust. This study was published in international journal Frontiers of Conservation Science. In this regard, fieldwork was conducted across suburban areas of Mumbai, Palghar and Thane districts of Maharashtra in 2018-19. 1). These regions encompass the northern hills of the Western Ghats and the western coastal plains bordering the Arabian Sea.
WAGHOBA, THE BIG CAT DEITY
Waghoba, a form of both, the tiger and leopard, is worshipped primarily for protection from the big cats. Researchers documented 150 shrines dedicated to Waghoba in their study titled “Sharing Spaces and Entanglements with Big Cats: The Warli and Their Waghoba in Maharashtra, India“. The study has been authored by Ramya Nair, Dhee, Omkar Patil, Nikit Surve, Anish Andheria, John D C Linnell and Vidya Athreya.
Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews and attended worship ceremonies concurrent to documenting Waghoba shrines. Further, questions were asked to explore narratives on the role of Waghoba in the lives of the Warli, the history of Waghoba worship, associated festivals, rituals and traditions and the ties between Waghoba and human-leopard interactions. The field study spread over 2125 kilometres across Maharashtra was done between November 2018-April, 2019.
The study revealed that the Warlis believed in a reciprocal relationship. The interviews revealed that the people in this landscape perceived leopards and tigers to be alike and considered them both to be a form of Waghoba. They believed Waghoba would protect them from the negative impacts of sharing spaces with big cats if the people worship the deity and conduct the required rituals, especially at the annual festival of Waghbaras. Researchers added such relationships facilitate the sharing of spaces between humans and leopards that live in the landscape.
The authors state, “This is relevant for present-day wildlife conservation as such traditional institutions are likely to act as tolerance-building mechanisms embedded within the local belief system. Further, it is vital that the dominant stakeholders outside of the Warli community (such as the Forest Department, conservation biologists, and other non-Warli residents who interact with leopards) are informed about and are sensitive to these cultural representations because it is not just the biological animal that the Warlis predominantly deal with“.
A WAGHOBA WORSHIP CEREMONY
The Warlis are an indigenous community from North-Western Maharashtra and have, for centuries, shared spaces with big cats. This landscape has been home to leopards and historically even tigers. The Warlis worship a big cat deity called “Waghoba.” Warlis are the most abundant of the groups that share the leopard landscape which gave the researchers a larger group of people to engage with while also allowing their initial inquiry to be focused on one community.
Researchers say, “Locally produced systems that address issues surrounding human-wildlife interactions may exist in several other cultures and landscapes. While conservation interventions have shown a movement toward inclusion and participation of local communities, we have to recognize that landscapes have a history before our own point of entry into them.”
A STONE WAGHOBA SHRINE
The main aim of the study is to diversify the way we understand and approach human-wildlife interactions. It does so by shedding light on how local institutions that contribute to co-existence are not devoid of conflict but have a role in negotiating the conflicts that arise.
WAGHOBA SHRINE AT VARWADE IN TALASARI
The GPS location of each shrine was recorded so as to map the geographical distribution of Waghoba shrines in the study area. Through extensive mapping, the study documented 150 Waghoba shrines within the study site. A majority of these shrines were found in multi-use landscapes and a few in protected areas like the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary which were being frequented by nearby residents.
The study also addressed the ways in which the range of institutions and stakeholders in the landscape shape the institution of Waghoba and thereby, contribute to the human-leopard relationship in the landscape.
(ALL IMAGE CREDITS FOR WAGHOBA & ITS SHRINE: RAMYA NAIR & FOR THE AAREY LEOPARD IMAGE : RANJEET JADHAV)