“Powerbaaz”. “Main boss”. No, these descriptions do not refer to any power-hungry politician or underworld don. It is how the indigenous Warli people of Maharashtra see their animal god, the Waghoba. The Waghoba is a cat-deity, usually depicted as a leopard or tiger.

For the Warlis, their Waghoba is an all-encompassing, powerful force: the god who helps them live with large cats, for they must often share space with leopards in northwest Maharashtra – the foothills of the Western Ghats – where they live. The institution of the Waghoba, and people’s faith in the deity, is extremely widespread here, found a recent preliminary study.

Such cultural, traditional concepts are relevant to current-day wildlife conservation because they act as “tolerance-building mechanisms” and could help people share space with leopards in the area, suggest scientists. The Western Ghats, its foothills and adjoining areas are home to both large cats (such as leopards) and people. Human-leopard interactions are commonplace: stories abound of leopards preying on livestock or being caught and released elsewhere, and grim tales run of fatal losses on both sides.

Waghoba of Warlis

But there is another story that binds people and leopards in northwest Maharashtra – a mythical one. The Warlis – an Adivasi community who live here – share a rare relationship with their cat-god, the Waghoba. They believe that if they unfailingly worship Waghoba, it will protect them from the negative impacts of sharing spaces with leopards. How prevalent is this worship, and what does this relationship mean for wildlife conservation at a time when the most-talked-about man-animal interactions border only on conflict?

To find out, a team including scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society-India studied the institution of the Waghoba in detail and the attitudes of the Warli to their Waghoba. First, they documented Waghoba shrines in the districts of Thane, Palghar and Mumbai Suburban (areas where leopards also dwell).

This revealed that the Warlis’ worship of the Waghoba here was very prevalent: of the 150 shrines they documented, villages that housed people of the Warli community were home to at least one Waghoba shrine. The Warlis worshipped the Waghoba for protection from diseases, calamities and big cats (they believe that the wagh or leopard is the “king of the jungle”, and it would protect them when they roam forests).

People described their narratives of the Waghoba: how they saw waghs as biological beings but also as being woven into the Warli cultural identity. One participant said that just as some gods have human forms, the Waghoba god took the form of tigers and leopards. When another referred to the deity as a “main boss” and “powerbaaz”, it “definitely hit a spot with us all and implied that it was very well known that Waghoba is a powerful force – biologically and spiritually”, wrote Ramya Nair, lead author of the study who documented these stories. The scientists found that the concept of the Waghoba lives on not just in remote, rural areas but in semi-urban and urban ones too.

What surprised co-author Omkar Patil, who also documented Warli narratives, was that people had great knowledge about the Waghoba. Not just about shrines and rituals, but also of the biology and behaviour of leopards. The annual “Waghbaras” – a night of celebrating the Waghoba with rituals such as poojas – was colourful and unforgettable, he added.

“It also reflected upon the fact that such traditions bring the whole community together…and that it builds up a sense of security and unity among people,” he wrote. “Community members from various parts of Maharashtra visit their distant relatives on this occasion.”

A woman worships a Waghoba shrine at Film City in Goregaon, Mumbai. Photo credit: Ramya Nair/Project Waghoba

Stakeholders and conservation

People here looked at conflict differently, found the scientists. The Warlis did not blame the predator on the occasional instances of livestock depredation by leopards – instead, they attributed it to their own oversight. They saw it as people not having met their end of the bargain in the Warli-Waghoba relationship.

However, institutions such as the forest department and conservation agencies see conflict only as material or socio-economic losses, and mitigation or compensation measures are designed only based on this; therefore, recognising and incorporating local belief systems could be important here, write the authors in their study published in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

“This is relevant for present-day wildlife conservation because such traditional institutions are likely to act as acceptance-building mechanisms,” they add.

Several other factors, including local politics, could be shaping the institution of the Waghoba of today too, suggest the researchers. Local political parties, for instance, supported Waghoba shrines in semi-urban and protected areas, as did the well-off. Similarly, the bhagat, a shaman-equivalent of the Warlis, mediates between people and the Waghoba during worship, sometimes even lapsing into trances as they flit between their human and leopard self. The bhagat, therefore, has immense social standing.

Acknowledging the power of such beliefs, entities and rituals, as well as incorporating these informal institutions into conservation action or policy is worth considering, suggest the scientists.

“We are suggesting that such local systems are valuable to engage with, in the paper,” said Nair, currently with the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Culture and institutions are not static, they keep evolving and adapting in accordance with changing times and various influencing factors, including local politics. Such institutions are complex and the more we engage with aspects of it like local politics, the more we understand the drivers of it and what sustains them in current times.”

Leopards and people share space in many parts of Maharashtra. Photo credit: Nikit Surve/WCS India

Shared spaces

Indeed, the study of local institutions gives us a “more relevant and context-specific understanding of people’s behaviour and thoughts in a particular landscape and this is very important for socially just conservation interventions”, wrote scientist Iravatee Majgaonkar who did not participate in the study. Majgaonkar studied the relationships between people and wolves in peninsular India.

There, pastoralists who share space with wolves too told stories of kinship with them (though no shrines marked worship), acknowledging that the animal takes sheep or goats because it “needs to eat”, she said. But that does not mean there is no persecution – wolves are hunted occasionally.

“However, in the case of the Warlis and their Waghoba, the institution seems to be much stronger,” she wrote. “And it is very much possible that it functions as a tolerance building mechanism because it gives people ‘a larger cause’ to accept the loss that they suffer.”

“Very cleverly designed conservation interventions can take the help of these institutions to make shared spaces safer for people and wildlife – say through sharing these stories while engaging with younger generations,” she commented.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.