Forest of Lions and Men: Human-animal Relationships in the Gir Forest, India

Singh, Sheena, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Damon, Frederick, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I document how interspecies relationships inform and co-constitute social identities in Western India. Informed by ethnographic research conducted in 2012 in the Gir Forest, Gujarat, this work addresses how two different human populations living or working alongside Asiatic lions in a wildlife sanctuary operationalize their ongoing relationships with the lions to construct both collective histories and individual possibilities. For the pastoral Maldhari community, lions occupy an essential role in a socioenvironmental order established during the time of Creation. The maintenance of that order necessitates a proximity to the lions that, if broken through state- or climate-based displacement, the Maldhari believe will result in the disappearance of the Gir lion population. For sanctuary employees, their physical closeness to the lions is alternatively foregrounded as a pathway to accessing a reimagined local social hierarchy that enables, or can possibly enable, temporal inversions of conventional power structures. Such inversions foster an understanding of social re-ordering that exposes an illusory quality, a frailty of social order in which they are oriented. When characterizing the human-lion relationship, both sanctuary employees and the Maldhari do not deny the existence of conflict but instead minimize the role it plays in defining that relationship. In this way, these communities are interpreting the ways of knowing a large predator as potentially comparable to and as complex as knowing another human. Ultimately, in Forest of Lions and Men, I argue the value of a multispecies ethnographic approach through an illustration of how nonhuman animals are taken seriously by peoples of the Gir Forest as actors in and co-constructors of the permanent and momentary social world(s) they inhabit.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Human-animal relationships, Sociocultural anthropology, South Asia, Indigenous environments
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