A Conservation Lesson: Big Cat Worship Eases Living With Leopards

A study documents how worshipping a big cat deity shapes the way people share spaces with leopards in India, providing new insights in conservation.

AsianScientist (Oct. 25, 2021) – As any cat owner can tell you, a healthy sense of reverence for your house cat can go a long way towards putting up with their oddities, be it waking you up in the middle of the night or scratching up your expensive furniture. A new study led by the Indian arm of the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that the same is true for our relationship with big cats.

The study, published in a special issue of Frontiers in Conservation Science, documents how big cat worship makes it easier for humans and leopards to coexist. The researchers studied the indigenous Warli community of Maharashtra, India who worship an ancient big cat deity called Waghoba and have lived alongside leopards for centuries. Humans have long shared spaces with and beliefs about wildlife, but conservation science has only relatively recently begun to study human-wildlife interactions in this context.

“In this study we considered not only the deity but the ‘social institution of Waghoba’ as the subject, exploring the multilayered and interrelated features of Waghoba worship and people-leopard relations including facets of religion, politics, and kinship,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers interviewed and observed the Warli people while documenting Waghoba shrines and worship ceremonies across the Mumbai Suburban, Palghar and Thane districts of Maharashtra.

Despite the threat leopards pose to livestock and humans, the researchers found that the people who worship Waghoba are more accepting towards sharing their space with the big cats. The Warlis believe in a reciprocal relationship with the deity, with Waghoba offering them protection against big cats, disease and calamities as long as they continue to worship and conduct rituals, especially at the annual festival of Waghbaras.

According to the researchers, this finding has implications for present-day wildlife conservation efforts. Namely, the existence of a relationship shaped by traditional beliefs highlights the need to reconsider deploying uniform conservation strategies across a landscape without first considering the individual relationships between the local communities and wildlife that share a space.

“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 coexistence are not devoid of conflict, but have a role in negotiating the conflicts that arise,” said lead author Ramya Nair, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The article can be found at: Nair et al. (2021) Sharing Spaces and Entanglements With Big Cats: The Warli and Their Waghoba in Maharashtra, India.


Source: Wildlife Conservation Society; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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