India’s indigenous Warli people revere leopards. They worship a leopard/tiger deity named “Waghoba” so that they can live peacefully alongside the wild, big cats. ©vaidyarupal, flickr

In a few days, many of you will be celebrating Christmas or another religious holiday. That means that your end-of-year celebrations might likely revolve around a deity or supreme being of your choice, whether it’s Jesus (United States), Saint Nicholas (Belgium, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), Santa Lucia (Norway and Sweden), Saint Basil (Greece), or any number of others around the world.

I suppose it’s because this time of year puts me in that mindset that I’m captivated by a recent story I heard about another kind of supernatural entity. This god is particularly appealing to me on this eve of Christmas 2021 because I feel like we need a fresh reset and new vision for our relationship with Earth and with every living creature who shares it with us.

This new story happens to come from India, and this divinity is a big cat: a leopard.

The Maharashtra-Gujarat border area—home of the Warlis—is endowed with abundant natural resources, such as fertile land and multiple river systems. ©Ankur Panchbudhe, flickr

And, in my opinion, this feline’s teachings are just as holy as those ascribed to the gods of the human type.

Warli worship of Waghoba

The indigenous Warli people of India live in the coastal and mountainous areas near the Maharashtra-Gujarat border and in the surrounding areas. The Warlis have a rich agricultural heritage; in fact, waral—the genesis for the tribe’s name—means “tilled land.” The beliefs of the Warlis focus on nature and are mostly animistic. For the Warlis, every creature, object and place possesses a distinct spiritual essence. Today, the Warlis are predominantly known for their unique style of painting, which reflects the close association between human communities and natural ones.

In a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science: Human-Wildlife Dynamics that was published on June 23, 2021, a research report supported by the Wildlife Conservation Trust documented how Warlis worship Waghoba, a leopard/tiger deity, to gain protection from the big cats and how they have lived side by side with leopards for centuries (formerly, tigers, too).

Like other leopard subspecies, Indian leopards are solitary predators that are well camouflaged at night but come down from trees to hunt during the day. ©Venkat Mangudi, flickr

To collect the data, the scientists used an ethnographic approach, conducting semistructured interviews, observing worship ceremonies and asking questions that explore the role that Waghoba plays in people’s lives; the history of Waghoba veneration, associated festivals, rituals and traditions; and the ties between Waghoba and human-leopard interactions.

The researchers identified more than 150 shrines dedicated to worshipping Waghoba. While there are some negative interactions with leopards—such as livestock depredations—the researchers note that the Warlis are more likely than other people who live near wild leopards to be accepting of the animals because of their belief system, which is tied to Waghoba.

Big cat contributions to cohabiting

The Warlis believe in a reciprocal relationship with Waghoba, where they will be protected from the negative impacts of sharing spaces with the big cats if they properly worship the deity and conduct the required rituals, especially at the annual festival of Waghbaras.

Pixabay (Created by Candice Gaukel Andrews)

Leopards are versatile, opportunistic hunters, and they have extremely broad diets. They can successfully take very large prey due to their massive skulls and powerful jaw muscles.

Religious relationships such as that between the Warlis and leopards can facilitate the sharing of spaces by humans and nonhuman animals, say the researchers. On the flip side, the ways in which the range of institutions and stakeholders in the landscape shape the institution of Waghoba also contribute to a good human-leopard association in this part of India.

Longevity of landscapes should be looked at

Of course, there are several other local religions and systems that address issues involving human-wildlife interactions in various landscapes. Native American tribes in the United States—such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes—and their relationship with American bison come to mind. The authors of the Waghoba study note that while recent conservation interventions have shown a movement toward the inclusion and participation of local communities, we need to recognize that landscapes have histories that go back long before our own, modern point of entry into them.

This is relevant for present-day wildlife conservation efforts because such traditional institutions are likely to act as tolerance-building mechanisms that are already embedded within local belief systems. It’s vital that dominant stakeholders outside of local communities (such as conservation biologists, overarching government department officials and others who interact with animals in a certain setting) are informed about and sensitive to local, cultural customs.

Leopards, such as this one photographed in India’s Nagarhole National Park, remind us that sometimes we’re not just dealing with a biological animal but a cultural belief, a landscape history and even a religion. ©Srikaanth Sekar, flickr

A holiday hope for humaneness

Perhaps we’re finally coming to understand that we need to diversify our methods when dealing with human-wildlife interactions. Culling or extirpating the animals who get in our way isn’t the wisest approach. The Waghoba report shows that often, it’s not just a biological animal that we’re considering. More precisely, it’s a creature who has a long history in a landscape—and a complex narrative of negotiating space alongside us.

This Christmas and into the New Year, my wish for all of you is that you make space for and enjoy a more compassionate, empathetic and peaceful life with the fellow beings—perhaps four-footed or on the fly or not—that surround you.

Happy holidays.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,