Feature: Gutsy female mahout overcomes gender barriers in Nepal
On a warm winter afternoon cheers and applause rang out as eight elephants entered the grounds of Sauraha during the 14th Chitwan Elephant Festival.
It was indeed a rare and spectacular sight for both locals and overseas visitors as the world's largest land animals got set to play football, one of the world's most popular sports.
Unlike the other seven participating elephants, one of the elephants was being ridden by a person clad in a red sweater, grey trousers and wearing a white scarf around the head. This was the only person to steal the attention of the hundreds of spectators during the 30-minute match.
The highlight of the game was 34-year-old Gita Danuwar, the only female mahout to participate in the elephant football championship this year.
"I think work should not be divided on the basis of gender. Work is equal, whether it is done by a male or a female. I feel happy and proud to be a female mahout," Gita told Xinhua after the match.
For Gita, it was not easy to break the barriers of her domestic sphere and enter into the profession, which is largely dominated by male and often thought to be representative of physical strength and a fearless attitude. Gita, a mother of two, could study only until lower secondary level in a small village in the Chitwan district, but she never lost the will to do something challenging.
With the support from her husband Krishna Danuwar, she decided to become a mahout six months ago. Today, she is among the five female mahouts who work together at the elephant center, known locally as Hattisaar, under the auspices of the Chitwan National Park.
"It's definitely not easy to deal with such giant creatures but I learned to adjust. Kasaragaj, the male elephant that I look after, is cooperative and follows my instructions well. If we love them, they will love back," Gita explained, holding her three-year-old son on her lap, while her husband stood nearby.
She wakes up every morning at 4:00 a.m., cleans the shed, visits the nearby forest for grass fodder, prepares meals for the elephants, goes on safaris or patrols as needs dictate and repeats the same routine in the evenings as well.
Her daily routine is filled with hardships but at the end of the day she cherishes the role she fought to play and feels proud that her monthly salary of Rs 16,000 (about 160 U.S. dollars) is equal to that of her male mahout counterparts.
"I often have to climb tall trees and it is particularly painful during certain times of the month as a woman. I am often teased by male mahouts. And during elephant safaris, many tourists don't trust me just because I am a female," Gita said of her job, traditionally regarded as a "male only" occupation.
Gita's husband has mixed feelings about his wife continuing the job, which is quite difficult and demands physical strength and lots of time and effort.
He is often worried about the possibility of one of the elephants going into a rage, as has happened in the past where elephants have fatally turned on their mahouts.
After all, Gita is not dealing with human beings but with the largest living terrestrial animal, which can weigh up to 5,000 kg in weight and can stand over three meters tall.
"It's a 24-hour job with many challenges. I used to suggest she do something else, but she refused. She is happy with this work so I am happy too," her husband Krishna Chaudhary, who has been working as a mahout for the past 10 years, told Xinhua.
For many, Gita's job is not just an inspiration for her fellow women wanting to become mahouts and work in the tourism industry in Chitwan, which is enriched with wildlife including giant elephants, endangered one-horned rhinos and royal Bengal tigers, but her story also encourages all women to overcome the gender barrier and prove their capabilities, intelligence and understanding.
"I have no regrets about being a mahout. It's a wonderful experience and I will continue my work," Gita said, beaming proudly.