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Worship of ‘Waghoba’, the large cat deity, and tolerance towards large cats in Western India

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by Vijaykumar Patil

AAB June 12: In view of the rising media reportage on human-large cat conflict, a recent study calls attention to a contrasting view where even today many traditional communities in India worship ‘Waghoba’ the large cat deity and seek its protection. Based on a survey conducted in parts of Maharashtra and Goa, it notes how people have been sharing space with the large cat and continue to do so, states a press release issued by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program on Tuesday.

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Authors record documentary evidence of the worship of ‘Waghoba’ the big cat deity and tolerance to the large cats in many traditional communities even today.

Study highlights need for interdisciplinary research in conservation for better understanding of human wildlife interactions beyond that of “conflict”.

According to WCS, in parts of Goa elaborate rituals are held twice a year when the priests claim the tiger or leopard call out during the process. The Velip community even claims that a large cat would accompany them home from the temple as recently as 20 years ago! Most people interviewed believe that the large cat deity protects them. Statues to Waghoba are said to date back to 1000 years.

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In Maharashtra, the deity is worshipped out of fear and respect and sacrificial offerings given to appease the cat. The study touches upon literature from other parts of the country too that shows people shared spaces with the wild cat and even prayed to it for protection.

Respondents displayed reasonable amount of knowledge on the habits and behavior of leopards, while also believing in some myths. They believed that the cats were scared of humans and kept away while a few that had been relocated could turn problematic.

The paper examines these benign attitudes in contrast to those of the colonial view of ‘man eaters’ and ‘cattle-killers’ as also the negative narrative of ‘conflict’ referred to in wildlife conservation parlances and highlighted in media.

The article was published in the Spring 2018 edition of the newsletter CATnews, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

For the study, the authors visited various indigenous communities from Maharashtra and Goa. GPS locations of the shrines were recorded, and local people were interviewed to obtain information about the shrine as well as their interactions with the large cats in the area.

Overall 150 respondents were interviewed, including priests and villagers.

The authors note that expanding on these preliminary studies requires the information that is not limited by their own disciplinary fields of expertise. Although social psychology and

sociology have recently begun to be more active in conservation, exploring institutions

like Waghoba requires tools drawn from ethnography and anthropology.

Dr Vidya Athreya, lead author of the paper and wildlife biologist with WCS India, comments, “In cultures where spaces are shared between large cats and people, a phenomena which is poorly understood, it is very important to look for knowledge from other disciplines that explain what allows for both sides to accept each other’s presence.”

The study was conducted by scientists of Wildlife Conservation Society – India Program, Annasaheb Kulkarni Department of Biodiversity, MES Abasaheb Garware College, Pune, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur and Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

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